What Are You?

March 8, 2012

Why do white people always ask this? They have this obsession with heritage: “I’m part this! I’m part that!” Who gives a shit?

One of the advantages of being back in the US is the ability to blend into the crowd. As a white, brown-haired, green-eyed, 20-something man with no physical abnormalities, I can walk to the corner store, pick up a bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola, ask the clerk in English to open it, and be on my way without making a lasting impression. It sounds simple, but it’s a luxury I lacked 99% of the time I spent in Korea and Japan. There’s no official name for this phenomenon as far as I know, so I’ll call it the Moviestar and Reverse Moviestar Effects: in Asia, you instantly gain celebrity status just by looking different than the masses; when you return home, you have to deal with the fact you’re not as special. Sometimes Japanese people even thought I was a real Hollywood actor… how I ended up at the head of their classroom is a question best left for the ages.

However, there are certain initiated pet peeves I associate with memories of my race and nationality, American white people, whatever that means. We just don’t know when to shut up about heritage.

I was a corporate speaker for an engineering firm in Sacramento last month, and had the fortune of working under a great professional who would later provide me freelance work in San Francisco. He happened to have been born in India, but moved away when he was a baby.

Stop, and ask yourself: what is this man, based solely on what I’ve told you? Is he Indian, American, neither, both, a third culture kid?

The short answer is he’s American. He can’t remember what it was like in India; growing up in this country is all he knows. Obviously, he speaks English fluently and without trace of an accent.

The problem is, some Americans, even those with open minds who are proud of the fact our country is a cultural melting pot, have some pretty stupid ideas about what an American should look like. There is no answer to that question: we’re yellow, brown, black, white, mixed-raced, every combination to every race and nationality you can imagine probably exists somewhere in this country.

So why, why, WHY do some people assume it’s impossible for my brown-skinned friend to be a “true American?” He must have had three people walk up him, complement his English, and ask where he was from. I have to say he took it better than I would have under similar circumstances, probably used to it by now. In Asia, it’s not exactly a ridiculous question to ask a foreigner where he’s from (ethnicity doesn’t usually come up, unless you’re not white), because it’s obvious he hasn’t been born in Korea, Japan, or Thailand based on his lack of understanding of the language and sudden appearance in ethnically homogenous cultures.

I know this happens all the time, and it’s not exactly the best reason to get upset. In my humble opinion, we Americans, even those I wouldn’t consider to be racist, want to compartmentalize other nationalities and races: “You look brown, you must have been born in India”; “You’re not really all that black – do you have a white grandmother?”. Even being white is necessarily a deterrent: I’ve had plenty of strangers ask about my heritage. The question is just as ludicrous for me as it would have been to my friend. And when the question of race is resolved, state heritage becomes an issue.

Who gives a shit? I’m American.

One Response to What Are You?

  1. Moira on March 8, 2012 at 6:38 am

    This is an intriguing topic to me. I’ve written about this before after some interesting discussions with my non American friends; it’s interesting that due to our cultural melting pot status, many Americans don’t acknowledge that being American is in fact a culture. Perhaps since our country is so young, we haven’t yet reached a point where we celebrate being American? I think Americans are so concerned with where people are from because the American cultural identity isn’t fixed enough to satisfy their needs.

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