Okay, friends, here it comes - my SRS business post for APA Month. You might get another before the month is over, but we'll see if I have another one in me.
This post is going to be a personal reflection that kind of has to do with Asian American identity and self-image. (EDIT: Gennia's comment makes a good point that it also kind of relates to the national conversation on immigration.)
In the summer of 2008, I packed my bags and went to Taiwan, the land of my parents and ancestors, for an internship that involved "digging stuff up" as my fellow interns and I liked to say because it was an archaeology internship. The reality was there was less digging and more cataloging. This is also how I found myself taking afternoon naps for a week in a warehouse full of ancient burial pots (used for the burial of babies). Yeah, creepy.
I hadn't been back to Taiwan for a decade, and I had never been there alone, without my parents or relatives. It was also my first time in the southern region of Taiwan, and I was rooming and interning with completely new people. So my experiences going back this time around were very different from my experiences of the place when I was last there as a child.
My internship group became fast friends, and we'd venture out in pairs and groups after work to try new restaurants and explore night markets. We helped each other with our varying levels of Chinese literacy (my language skills are kind of shameful) - by which, I mean, the one guy in our group who could actually READ Chinese translated menus for us so we could decide what to order. The experience was tiring and fun and dang, did it improve my speaking skills!
But something my new friends and I realized while we were there was that being in Taiwan, in the place where, based on appearance, we were the majority, we felt more American than ever.
For one, as I've mentioned, most of us aren't Chinese literate. If you ever want to know how sucky being illiterate is, go to a country where you can't read the signs or order things at McDonalds when there's no picture because you can't read what's on the menu. But that aside, the feeling of difference was more prominent when it became clear to the locals that we weren't literate. They almost always reacted with confusion or surprise because we more or less looked Taiwanese/Chinese.
Continuing on the language topic, for some of us, our accents gave us away as non-natives. It became a game my roommate and I played every time we went somewhere and someone asked where we were from. We kept tallies of how many times someone thought we were Korean or Japanese, from Hong Kong or Singapore. No one ever guessed the U.S. because hey, we sounded foreign but we sure as heck looked Asian.
We dressed a little different and acted a little different. We wore tank tops and flip-flops, strolled bare-armed and bare-legged in the sweltering, summer heat when most Taiwanese girls wore outfits that were much more put-together (flip-flops? way too casual) and made sure to cover their arms and faces to avoid getting tanned. We were loud - talked, laughed, shouted loudly, and when we were together, we spoke to each other in slang-ridden, organic, fluent English and called each other by our English names, which for most of us is the name that counts, the name with which we identify ourselves.
I'd never felt more American than when I was there that summer, surrounded by people who looked like me and watching people on TV and in ads that looked like me (hey there, Asian beauty icons and pop stars and movie starlets!).
To all those people in the U.S. who like to throw around the phrase, "Go back to where you came from," I'd like to say, how can you ask that? Taiwan was not where I came from, and going back there now would only emphasize how AMERICAN I am. The U.S. has always been a land of immigrants, and by rights, I could tell an American descendent of one of the original colonizing families to "go back to where they came from" because his/her forefathers came from England. And let me pose this question here, how would that descendent feel back in England? Would they ever think of themselves as English, as belonging there? Could they possibly think of England as home?
Because I love Taiwan and maybe if I weren't so Chinese illiterate, I'd like to live there for a bit, but I could never call it home.
On the flip side, when I'm back here in the U.S., where I was born and raised, I'm very aware of my Asian roots. I'm very aware that I'm Asian-American or Asian American, but not since I was very young have I thought of myself as just "American".
How can I when I have childhood memories of kids in my class slanting their eyes and making jokes (nevermind that I don't even have small or slanted eyes)? How can I when I hardly see Asian faces as part of mainstream media? How can I think I'm just "American" when people will still, often innocently, ask me where I'm from and when I say, "California," they'll say, "No, I mean where are you really from?"
I don't get offended about the latter because I know most people don't mean it in an offensive way and they just want to know my ethnic heritage, but really, think about this. Do people commonly ask you "where are you from?" and are unsatisfied when you answer with "New York" or "Minnesota" or "Las Vegas"? When you're asked "Where are you from?," do you ever expect the asker to actually mean "Are you from Ireland/Spain/Russia/South Africa/France/Ethiopia?"
"HERE, I'm from HERE," I want to say in answer to that question, but usually, I just smile and say, "I was born here, but my parents are from Taiwan."
A question as innocent as that ("Where are you from?") reveals the persistant societal attitude in the U.S. that Asians will always be some kind of "other."
So yeah, I'm aware of my Asianess in America, but I'm aware of my Americanness in Asia. And so there's always this push and pull to Asian American identity and self-image, this inextricable duality. I don't angst about it (no identity crises here), but the awareness of the duality of my identity is there and I acknowledge it.
Thanks for reading my somewhat more serious piece. Hope it was interesting. I'll see you all on Friday with another recipe, courtesy of my awesomesauce college roommate!
P.S. For another personal perspective on the topic, check out XiXi's Asian-American Self Image post at From Elysium.