“Where are you from?”

“Born in Florida, raised in NC.”

“No, but where are you FROM? What ARE you?”

I have had this same type of exchange with people SO MANY TIMES! When was the last time? Hmm…oh yeah, Friday. The time before that? Let’s see…it was Tuesday. No exaggeration. Several times a week, unless I don’t go out in public, someone asks me where I am from. About once every couple of months someone tells me I speak good English. Being of mixed race, and looking really Asian, has been both a blessing and a curse. I absolutely love being multicultural, and it gives me a unique perspective on racism, stereotypes, and human nature. Constantly explaining that I am born and raised here in the States, not so fun. My southern accent is incongruent with my asiany eyes, so that’s always a hilarious conversation-starter with total strangers.

Because I am a non-confrontational person, I have made an art of appearing delighted to talk to a person even though inside I am cursing him and his future generations to hammertoes and humpbacks. I work in the service industry, so it would cost me money if I made a big deal out of each and every racist comment I have ever fielded. Being a bartender was even more challenging, because the drunks loved to hit on me while making the lamest of Asian jokes. That internal filter really shuts down after a couple of Long Islands. I am proud to say that I could sweetly cut a person off and make him leave while making it seem it was all his idea. It’s a gift.

It’s not fair to get offended each and every time someone asks about my heritage. Where I am from, there aren’t a ton of Asians, though there are enough that it isn’t a weird occurrence to see one. What makes me unusual around here is that I don’t “act Asian,” so it invites comment. If I have been talking to someone for some time, I don’t mind them asking where I am from or what my heritage is. Where it gets dicey is the conversation from that point. Mentioning you like rice, for instance. Don’t do that. Saying Bruce Lee is awesome…no. Saying I look exotic…sounds like a compliment. It is not. You may, however, tell me I look younger than my age. Always ok.

The essence of the insult when people assume I am not REALLY American is that being Asian, even if you are born HERE, means that you cannot assimilate into American culture. This assumption applies only to non-white people, it seems. If one migrates from Scotland, within one generation (as soon as the taint of an accent has been removed), that white person is an “AMURRICAN, by GOD!”

Edward Said, a Palestinian-American, in his book, “Orientalism,” presented a critical analysis of how the Western world looks at and presents Eastern cultures. Cultural misrepresentations perpetuate the concept of the East as an exotic, otherworldly place that is foreign to the Western mind. It is difficult for Americans, who are particularly insulated from other cultural influences in many ways, to understand that someone with Asian features could think and act like a “regular American.”  I have experienced this mindset with both white and black Americans. In their minds, even if they understand I was born here, I have some sort of vestigial traces in my brain of whatever stereotypes they hold of an Asian person as experienced through movies or literature.

While this is merely an annoyance for me, the effects of this type of racism is destructive on a greater scale. Western tradition is considered superior (by Westerners) and takes great pride in its “eastern studies.” It is telling that eastern studies BY EASTERNERS are invalid for study. Historically, Eastern thought had to be interpreted and regurgitated by a Western mind in order for it to be properly defined.

Western arrogance leads us to believe that we can meddle in the affairs of the Middle East and “fix” all of the problems there. Our inability to consider that thousand of years of history cannot be fixed by Western “rationality” keeps us on this destructive path of war and human misery. Our paternal attitudes only further exacerbate the complex issues in that region. In World War II, this led to the internment of  thousands of Japanese Americans and the instant annihilation of hundreds of thousands with two atom bombs-the second of which had absolutely no strategic value, no matter what anyone says to the contrary. We “fixed” Cambodia and Vietnam as well. In essence, Western arrogance is white male supremacy, leading to all manner of depravity, from blaming the poor for their own problems, to war, to slavery…

“No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).” ~~Edward Said

12 thoughts on “What is a Real American?

  1. Amaya, this is well said and well done. I checked the video out. Very funny.
    Your bartending skills seem to serve you well in diffusing many weird and offensive conversations. Take care, BTG

    1. Thanks, BTG. In an odd way, bartending really prepared me for parenthood. Dealing with a bunch of self-centered crybabies that cannot control their bodily functions or see the consequences of their actions…plus they do hilarious stuff sometimes. :0)

      1. Amaya, I showed this video to my family. They got a big kick out of it. I am not sure I want to know about your comment about “bodily functions” lack of control. I hope you did not have to clean anything up in your duties as bartender. Take care, BTG

  2. I get asked where I’m from a lot too, but it’s mostly because of my accent. That doesn’t bother me, and I also don’t see a problem asking somebody where they are from if they are already talking to him and have an accent. What bothers me is when people say “oh, I know someone else from your country, do you know him/her?”

  3. Okay, first that video is funny I loved that! Where are you from? Perfect response.

    One does have to wonder why this is our response, always to those who don’t look like us. My father was first generation on his fathers side, yet there isn’t a single person who would have ever thought to ask where he was from. My adoptive mother was first generation on both sides, yet same thing, noone would think to ask.

    Looking exotic? Gad, I suppose you would in NC, some members of my adoptive family use to say this about me, I didn’t look like them so I understand how this is a serrated knife of a non-compliment. The real problem? We don’t seem to care if the filters are off with some of our fellow Americans, the ‘not like me’ seems to invite questions.

    Great post, thank you for allowing us in.

    1. I wish I had the balls to act like the lady in the video sometimes. Ironically, when I’ve had a few drinks, I am better with the smart-ass comments. Unfiltered and all that.

      1. I think sometimes you should just ask yourself, are their questions to you going through a filter? I would suspect the answer would usually be “Big Fat No”. With this in mind, even without a drink or two, maybe you could be more like her.

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