Sunday, June 12, 2011

You’re not American

The second goal of Peace Corps is to promote a better understanding of Americans by host country nationals.  What if the host country nationals don't believe you are American?


This is a typical conversation I have with friendly strangers:




"Where are you from?"

"I am American."

"American?  But you look Chinese."

"Yes I am Chinese American."

"Oh Chinese American, so you are Chinese."


As an American, I know I am American.  I speak American English.  I have American mannerisms and values.  I have lived in America for most of my life.


Is it my duty as a Peace Corps volunteer, to try my best to convince host country nationals that I am American so that I can promote a better understanding of Americans?


I have had many conversations in my limited Chinese.


"I'm American.  I was born in Taiwan but my Chinese parents were too poor.  They gave me to American parents."

"Oh.  Four parents?"

"Yeah. I was three days old when I was given to my American parents.  I don't remember my Chinese parents and can't recognize them."

"Oh… I'm sorry.  Do you want to find your Chinese parents?"

"Well, now that I can speak a little bit of Chinese and know more about Chinese culture, it is more of a possibility but still not my priority."


I have had this conversation many times.  Did I convince people that I was American?  Nah…  Americans are white.  Everyone else isn't American.  It is about definitions and it is difficult to change a belief system.  In America, we label people by citizenship and skin color.  In China, people label others by skin color.


So we are arguing about different things.  Chinese people say, "You look Chinese," while I am saying, "Yes, but I have an American citizenship and am culturally American." 


Just by having the conversation people realize that they aren't talking with a local but are talking with someone very different than themselves even though we look alike.  It is in a very small way introducing people to Chinese Americans and the diversity of America.


The question though is, "With locals, how hard should we debate whether or not I am American?"  Do I want to every single conversation discuss my adoption and try to explain the concept of citizenship and culture?  Do I want to become frustrated when we are arguing two different ideas, physical features versus culture/citizenship?


I think in order to stay sane, I pick my fights and try not to let people's non-belief bother or irritate me.  It isn't worth the energy.  With people who can't understand that I am American,  in my heart I agree to disagree.  With some, I just say, "I'm Chinese American," and leave the conversation there even though I can see it in their eyes that they don't believe I am American.  With others, like students and friends, we explore and have conversations about the various ideas about diversity, stereotypes, and Americans.  My students all believe that I am American.  I have never had a problem with students not believing me.  Sometimes it just takes them time to shift and to open up their understanding of the world.


What are some coping mechanisms for the "You're not American," accusation?

1.       Find a Chinese phrase that can be used to explain where you are from, a phrase that you are happy with and that people will somewhat understand.

2.       Be content knowing that you are American and don't feel pressured to convince everyone in the whole world that you are.  Some people are just stuck in their own belief systems.

3.       Remember that the people who interact with you regularly will come to understand that you are American.

1 comment:

M said...

You're getting ready for that diversity talk at PST and your job I see ! I think you're covering a lot in the last few posts.... C'est ça de tarvail en moins :) good job!