From a Different Shore...

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.


Tere Kirkland said...

Wow, thanks for sharing something so personal with us.

I think that's true for most people of mixed race/heritage/culture, in that there isn't ONE cultural group that you can say you wholly belong to. The people of each group will only see the "other" in you, not what makes you the same.

How can we perpetuate this in the U.S. where our entire population is made up of "others"—since, like you said, even those who consider themselves "American" are only a few generations removed from being immigrants themselves?

Isn't it diversity that makes this country so great? That's what I was raised to believe, anyway, but obviously some people never learned that. :(

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and well-written post. I'm sure every Asian-American can relate in some way. It's strange and sad how ignorant people can be in a country built by immigrants. People will never let you forget that you don't look "American."

Yet at the same time, all the recent debate over immigration and border issues between US and Mexico really brings to light how lucky we, Asian-Americans, were growing up in comparison. Some of the things people say about illegal immigrants are just completely mindless and atrocious. Can you imagine growing up in America for as long as you remember, only to be torn away from the only community you know and deported to a foreign country? Or being asked for proof of citizenship on the street just because your skin color is different?

David de Beer said...

a more serious post, but very interesting. funnily enough, one I do empathise and in some ways identify with perfectly:)

My interests in Germany, France and England has a lot to do with the fact that my ancestors come from there, and I do want to see all of them one day, even tracing back some of the origins of my family, but I don't identify with those countries, don't feel as though I am a member of those nations.
For better or worse, I am South African, and always will be. This is my home, not one I'm always nuts about and often enough we are made to feel alien and unwelcome here, but it is the only one I've ever known.
Now when you are white and Afrikaans you can only be from one place, and that is here. For all our diverse ancestry, my people were born on the continent of Africa and this is not simply the home we live in, it is the place that birthed us, so basically it is our ancestral homeland now.
I see that reflected in, for example, cousins who moved away to other countries and are def. now Australian, but they have a hunger and need to come and see this country they barely remember, and to know a little more of this people of whom they still consider themselves part of.
When white South Africans emigrate to other countries, especially when they have young kids, a question they wrestle with is -- who will they be?
Recently on television I watched a program where SA [white] farmers were being courted by Georgia, the country, and one older man bluntly said: if I move, I will be Georgian.
some here view that as a betrayal, but I don't, it makes sense to me. My uncle and aunt raised their sons to be Australian, and they are, and they seem happy with being Australian [admittedly, it is a culture they can assimilate easy enough into], but it's clear both have a strong awareness of their heritage, and take interest in it.
I think that's the way it should be, be aware of where you come from in the distant past, but who you are is reflective of more immediate circumstances.

in your cases, it makes perfect sense to me that you would think of yourself as American. It is who you are, and you should take pride in that and to any aspect of your heritage is to deny yourself and ultimately leads to the kind of confusion and bitterness that makes it so easy for extremist groups to recruit young muslim men who are not first, but rather 2nd or 3rd generation, immigrants.
for that matter, the same kind of confusion that certainly reigned among the first of my own people to be born on Africa. It's rather on record that, whether they were Dutch or French or whatever, they were born in another country and were bewildered as to who they were supposed to be. So, in one rather famous incident, a drunken young man arrested for racing his horse through town, exlaimed to the magistrate, "I am an Afrikaner" [yeah, I know, not the most auspicious start to have in one's past:)]

You touches on far too many points to
discuss in just one blog essay, but this question, which basically comes down to the fundamental issue of "Who am I?" that no human being can progress past if it is not answered, is one I see a lot of people grapple with.

David de Beer said...

[part 2, because Blogger is annoying and I am too wordy]

There is a persistent image of a white, English-speaking America, but to be frank, it is not true. Your country is a diaspora of various cultures melted into one.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand too. Yugoslavia blew up in flames because a variety of different peoples occupied the same space adn zenocide was allowed to blossom.
South Africa is a country of 13 peoples. We are not a nation, since every people identifies themselves as being of their people first, and of their country second [this is where we differ from you Americans, who I perceive to think themselves American first adn last almost always, but then we are younger and our histories are different]. Still, there is a sense of being South African, even though none of us know what that means, tbh, and in my case at least, I am still seriously thinking of moving away some day. Even then, it will still be home, still be part of my identity.

It's all about identity, really.
well, I've gone on at some length with my random musings:)
a good and thoughful post, Alice, thank you.

XiXi said...

This is awesome. You put in words what I have often felt but didn't know how to say. Often when I go to China, I miss America the most. I miss the food, I miss my friends, I miss being around people who understand what I'm like. I just miss the country. It's clean and sunny and friendly. This is my home, and I was even born in China.

But when I get back, I miss China, because I miss my family and the food and the way you can just blend in (if you don't open your mouth!).

The thing is, you pretty much feel foreign to some degree no matter where you are. It was, is, and always will be harder for Asian immigrants to assimilate because no matter what we do, even if we speak perfect English, we still look Asian. That's the first thing people see.

Great post. And thanks for the shout-out!

ali cross said...

This is so, so fascinating to me, and I really appreciate your candor in sharing your thoughts and experiences.

So, sometimes I want to know what a persons' heritage is. I think I want to know because I imagine there's a different experience there, a different story to learn, but I never know how to ask. IS there a way? Or is it something I have to just wonder about and wait until such a time as a person volunteers the information. Does that make sense?

David de Beer said...

>I never know how to ask.

ooh, yes, that is kind of a problem, ennit? personally, I've decided that you can either ask bluntly or wait and hope that with time and patience opportunity will reveal the answers to you.
I'd say about 80% of the time when you just ask, people will answer without rancor. Thing is, I might genuinely want to know something but might be unfamiliar with the established protocols or ignorant of any potential offense I give, and most people, I believe, accept that in various situations we are all the same in that regard and take it in their stride, since there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by answering when someone shows interest in your country or culture. Actually, tbh, I'm convinced most people are glad to share and flattered when someone shows an interest.

There are some rare people who will react with hostility and violence just because you dare to ask, but they are the exception, and I've noticed they are also people who see offence in everything, or mistake interest for attack, and can turn the potentially sympathetic into enemies.
I've had rewarding discussions with people of very different backgrounds and cultures, and learned a deeper appreciation of humanity than I would have otherwise had if I had chosen to not ask, so ultimately it seems better to take the leap, as it were.
If you don't ask, people don't know that you might be interested.

Lydia Kang said...

This totally brings me back to the time I spent a few summer weeks in Seoul at a summer language program (I'm of Korean heritage.) We were often laughed at and stared at curiously by everyone there. They even brought a TV camera crew to make fun of our cut off jean shorts (at this time, Korean teens were dressing with tailored shorts, opaque tights, and heels in the heat of summer!).

I felt very American that summer too. Now that I'm in the midwest, I'm still very conscious of my ethnicity, but somehow I'm very much at peace with it.

Connie Keller said...

When my autistic son was young, he had no conception of race. Everyone was the same. He thought my Chinese sister-in-law and I (Spanish/Dutch background) were sisters because we both had long dark hair and tan skin. It was really amazing in some ways. However, we had to teach him about race because he'd say things that people misunderstood because they didn't realize that he had no understanding of race, let alone racism.

Golden Eagle said...

I've never been outside of the USA since I was adopted, but I can relate to being Asian-American. As Icy Roses pointed out, even if you're Asian and speak perfect English and have grown up in America, the Asian appearance remains something that people notice.

Great post.