My Nationality

“What nationality are you?”

 

I was sitting in my ethics class, fourth row from the front. Class was about to start in a couple of minutes. I had my Kant text out, my yellow legal notepad flipped to my most recent chickenscratch. The girl sitting to my left had asked me the question. I had never talked to her before, but she’s heard me talk in class. She wore glasses and black shoes that had red shoelaces on the left and rainbow shoelaces on the right. She was pale, had dirty blond hair that was cut a little below the shoulder, and had a pair of cool blue eyes. She had a plain face.

 

I doubt she gets too many questions about her nationality.

 

My Caucasian friend this past weekend told my visiting best friend and me that she has too many Asian friends. I don’t remember what the context was. I don’t really know what the statement meant, anyway. If my friend and I were part of those “too many Asian friends,” it’s certainly puzzling that, although we’re quite as American as we can be, with our American sports teams, and our fluent American English, and our American universities, and our American homes, and our American heritages, what’s noted is our un-American looks. It’s puzzling because my family history on my Dad’s side is as extensive as any American’s. My family was in World War II. My family was in the Civil War. My family has a ranch in Texas named “Davidson Ranch” because they were the first ones to set it up. It’s still out there, I think. But that doesn’t matter, because I look Asian. Or mixed. Or something. Not white, not American, or at least, not real American.

 

I’m Asian. Duh.

 

A Caucasian classmate in my comparative literature class last week said he was puzzled why minorities didn’t, you know, own it. Own that distinction as minorities. Accentuate the difference. Own our status as being different from the regular crowd. Own the damn thing.

 

As I do with many suggestions thrown my way, I thought about it.

 

I thought about owning the damn thing. I thought about coming to class in Japanese-brand clothes. I thought about associating myself exclusively with other Japanese students. I thought about shaving an inch off my dick, maybe two. I thought about being bad in bed. I thought about sticking a fork in my philosophy major and picking up engineering or biology. I thought about shutting up and being a model minority. I thought about these things and more, and I thought about how I could conform to what these good white people thought of me as what I should be, Asian first, White American second.

 

And then, after thinking about it a while, I didn’t tell my ethics classmate that my mom is Japanese or that I am half-Japanese. I let her know I was an American.

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5 thoughts on “My Nationality

  1. Interesting anecdote on this topic. I am taking classes over here in Hong Kong for the semester, a place that brings into discussion a whole bevy of racial questions that the “Asian”-American label is completely ignorant of. And 2 stories come up.

    The first is we were all going around introducing ourselves in a class, including where we are from – as our heritage does comprise a large component of our cultural identity – and when I said I was Ian from California that was easily accepted. However another girl who is clearly Asian in appearance and has a fairly thick Asian accent also introduced herself as from America. I was confused more by the accent than anything but my Asian professor didn’t really accept that as an answer. She asked over and over, “No where are you from?” and the girl repeatedly responded, “America”. Finally the girl relented the information that her father was Japanese and her mother was Vietnamese, but insisted again afterwards, “But I am American”.

    The second is that I have a mandarin course here that is full of entirely international students. Usually in classes the three or four white kids who speak some variation of English find each other immediately in a sea of Hong Kong students who are already grouped together. This is not a deliberate act, for me at least, it really is a subconscious draw to that which you are comfortable with; and that typically leads to the minority (yes we are a minority here) white students sitting together. Anyways, I get to mandarin and we all naturally coagulate only to realize once class started that we are all international students. As we introduce ourselves I learn that there is actually another American in the class, but he was Asian-American, and was sitting in the front with the Korean exchange students while I was in the back next to the three Swedish guys.

    I don’t have a thesis about race relations from these stories yet but I will say that on a subconscious level race and the desire to associate with the familiar is an incredibly powerful force. It led me to sit with kids from a country I’ve never been to before rather than with someone from a city I visit often with whom I have mutual friends back at Georgetown. In relation to your post it leads me to say that maybe the question “where are you from” needn’t be an offensive affront to your American identity, but rather an attempt to push past our racial biases and understand you a little. Although I do see how for you in America, or the girl in my class, it can be frustrating when people don’t seem to accept you under the American label because of your appearance of accent.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful insight on the topic, Ian. I think one of the comments on Facebook in regards to this post talked about me making assumptions, and how those are just as bad as perpetuating racism. I can’t say I fully agree with the accusations, but it does make me think about how much assumptions go into both sides (of this particular case, anyway). Are assumptions ever justified? I don’t know, but I’ve been certainly thinking about it all day.

      “The desire to associate is an incredibly powerful force.” I totally agree. To be a part of something is something that, to me, seems pretty naturally intertwined with our human nature. Hope you can come away with more stories and fill me in on your findings. Thanks again for taking your time to respond with your thoughts, I really appreciate it!

      Hearty cheers from Philly,

      Hans

  2. Nice.
    Part of me wants to be all hapa pride, but, as everything, being mixed race comes with a distinct set of…interesting experiences. Even the term “mixed race” sounds a little crude, doesn’t it? It strikes me as such an objectification, like we should get our own page in an encyclopedia or something.
    I actually find that I am slightly less subject to strangers’ comments regarding my ethnic status/culture/nationality/whatever here in the US than when I visit family in Germany or China. Obviously, my parents’ cultures are relatively homogonous, so there I might be regarded as more of an anomaly. The questions and comments I get are rarely intentionally rude or offensive, but tend to show a lack of understanding/exposure to people outside the given homogenous culture. Sometimes it’s like I’m some sort of exotic creature in a zoo, or I get hit with “no, where are you really from?” or even “I love beer/lo mein”. Because that’s relevant?
    I’ve come to find it all kind of amusing, but there is always that undercurrent of “you’re not like us.” And I’m ok with that – with being different, maybe less with that subliminal message in people’s words, but I also sometimes feel the need to connect with other hapas over this experiential phenomenon.
    Maybe that adequately explains why I’m commenting on an old post like a fucking weirdo.

    1. I had an interesting conversation with my foreign exchange roommate from Italy about this. The discourse of us vs. them, particularly how we view citizenship in regards to race, is a lot more developed (as in, they take place) here than it is in Italy. Or at least that’s what I gleaned from our chat. In that sense, I’m happy that this kind of discourse takes place here in the States.

      PS: If leaving thoughtful comments on blog posts makes you a fucking weirdo, I wish there were more fucking weirdos!

      1. Right? It’s such an interesting and important conversation to have, but I think a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about it.

        And it’s pretty easy to compose thoughtful comments in response to insightful blog posts. So, thank you.

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