The Ultimate Survival Guide for Touring Washington DC

Greetings everyone! This week I have been visiting my Peace Corps friends in Washington DC, a hotbed for politics and tourism. Despite my extensive preparation and research, nothing quite prepared me for the size, scale and grandeur that is our nation’s capitol. It has been amazing and overwhelming. Amazing because there is so much rich history and tradition here; and overwhelming because I didn’t realize how incredibly huge all of the buildings and monuments are. The place is so big that every building has its own map for visitors. I ran into a gentlemen at the National Portrait Gallery who has been lost inside for over 50 years!

Realizing how incredibly daunting a vacation to DC can be, I put together this survival guide for Asian-Americans (and other English speakers). It’s perfect for any tourist visiting this fine city.

Do your research before your trip:

Watch movies that take place in DC to familiarize yourself with the surroundings. My personal recommendations are: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Captain America 2, and White House Down. Ironically, WHD has the most accurate portrayal of DC because it includes Asians in the film. I learned that there are indeed Asians who live and work in DC (at least five). But unlike the movie we’re not trying to blow up the White House. I really hope I don’t get flagged by the CIA, NSA, or FBI for that last line.

Gear you’ll need:

  • A dSLR camera and tripod; great for taking pictures of yourself pretending to hold the Washington Monument in your hand.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses. Asians respect and fear the sun.
  • A valid license or passport. For getting into bars; also useful for proving your US citizenship since everyone thinks we’re foreigners.
  • A map of DC and the Metro System, which you can find everywhere in any hotel, shop or metro station.
  • A compass to help you navigate.
  • A pocketbook “Asian”-English translator. Strangely, a few White people have come up to me saying things like “ching chong chang.” Super confusing. I thought all White people spoke English. Guess not.

5 Must See Attractions:

Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The memorial honors US service members who fought and died in the Vietnam War. When reading the engraved names, you can also see your reflection on the wall. This is intentional and symbolically brings together past and present. A short distance away is a bronze statue called “The Three Soldiers” which includes a White, African and Latino American soldier. Though I could literally see my reflection in the memorial walls, my story wasn’t being reflected at all. Glaringly missing from the memorial are any mention of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who also lost their lives during the war. You’ll need to decide for yourself how that makes you feel.

National Portrait Gallery: Get ready to magically stumble upon a gigantic portrait of LL Cool J, a modern-day Rockefeller. Seeing it inspired me and gave my life new purpose. Then I went on a search for Asian-American portraits and found three: Isamu Noguchi, a prominent Japanese American artist; Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star; and Bruce Lee, a demigod who will break your face with a one-inch punch. We need more Asian portraits. I vote for the other James Hong–actor, director, and the voice of Po’s dad on Kung Fu Panda.

Martin Luther King Jr Memorial: One of the greatest and most recognized civic rights leaders in history. A relief of Dr. King is carved into white granite, and overlooks the Tidal Basin. Though we have come a long way since the 1960s, the memorial is a reminder that the fight for civil rights and equality will always be a work in progress.

National Japanese American Memorial: The internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans during WWII is one of the greatest tragedies in American history. This memorial acknowledges the grave injustice our country committed in the name of national security (there have been others since). The names of the ten internment camps, along with more than 800 Japanese American who died fighting in the war, are etched into memorial walls. It took a while for my friend and I to find the name of her uncle who served.

National Museum of the American Indian: The museum is dedicated to the life, language, history and culture of Native Americans. I was inspired by the strength and resiliency of the Native community, who have persevered despite over a century of oppression and discrimination. There’s a lot Asian-Americans can learn from this history. We share a similar struggle, like people who wear our clothing like it’s a costume.

A couple things you should avoid, but probably can’t:

Chinatown: For authentic Asian food and culture, look no further than as far away from Chinatown as you possibly can go. Despite the “Friendship Arch,” a large gateway found in many Chinatowns, storefronts with Chinese characters, and occasional Asian person walking down the street, there is nothing here that vaguely reflects Asian American culture and history. A great case study on gentrification and displacement. The DC Chinatown is just so extraordinary that you really need to see it with your own eyes–but you’ve been warned.

Crazy, homeless people: On the subway station, a homeless man ranted something that included the words “Asians” “chink” and “have small penises.” My initial reaction was “who told you!?” He must have had x-ray vision. Even though there were other Asians on the subway, he specifically singled me out. “The Asian in the orange shirt…blah blah blah…chink.” I’m not sure what his intentions were, but I felt pity for the man. He was very obviously a wacko. The moral of the story: don’t wear orange on the DC metros as it attracts the attention of racist, homeless people. Or maybe it was because I hadn’t washed my shirt since coming off the plane and he was attracted to its musty odor.

The Take Away:

You’ll need to accept there is not enough time to everything, and instead focus on a few things that are really meaningful to you. For me, it was learning how Asian Americans impacted the growth of our nation. The unfortunate truth is there isn’t much here to acknowledge the contributions of the Asian Americans, though the portrait of Bruce Lee is bad ass. And therein lies the greatest gift the Asian American community can give to this great country–our diverse voices and stories.

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2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Survival Guide for Touring Washington DC”

    1. Thanks Trang! It was awesome and I hope to go back sometime in the near future. I only got through 10% of the Air and Space Museum…and left shortly before I figured how out planes work 😦

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