Explaining the Face of My American Boyfriend

In the past five years, I’ve lived a life different from the life of a typical Montenegrin. I’ve traveled, succeeded academically and professionally, and grown to be an opinionated and loud individual. I did all of this on my own – which might be the most non-Montenegrin thing – to be able to preserve your integrity, and still do well. However, I wouldn’t have become who I am if it wasn’t for the assistance of many individuals who have entered my life, and those who have affected it indirectly. One of these people is my partner, an intelligent, beautiful, hard-working American man who supports and challenges me in ways I can only try my best to repay. He also happens to be of East Asian descent.

This is a very difficult topic for me to write about, not because of the reception of those who are uninterested in it – I am used to eye rolls whenever I try to engage people in a conversation about race and ethnicity, or social issues in general. What makes this daunting and intimidating is that I might not be able to fully translate what I feel into words, and my understanding of the issue at hand might be limited and warped by my own experiences. It is also very unfortunate that my partner’s colorful personality has to be reduced to his race and ethnicity in this article, but both of us feel that it is crucial for us to contribute to this conversation.

I was born in Montenegro, a small country in the southeast of Europe, where perceivably white people make up well over 95% of the population (I am part of this population). Race is barely discussed here, and when it is, it’s rarely pretty. Small communities of Montenegrins of color are disregarded, or regarded in most inhumane ways. It might be naïve to expect white Montenegrins (this sounds a bit redundant, but I use this phrase because Montenegrins of color do exist) to be critical of issues of race and ethnicity, and it’s understandable why we sometimes don’t. After all, our existence here has been reduced to a very simple life, where no improvement or progress seem possible in the sea of corruption, ignorance, and complacency. I digress, though.

About four years ago, I came back to Montenegro after spending nine months in the US. Many things about me were different, but as things go here, what stood out the most was the fact that I’ve “succeeded in life” by starting a relationship. Usually, finding an American boyfriend is regarded as a huge accomplishment here, but it seemed to me that many of my friends, acquaintances, and family members were very confused by my choice. It wasn’t only Montenegrins, it was a huge amount of whites I happen to know, both American and non-American alike, who seemed to not really understand that one can be a person of color, and also be American. What’s most disappointing, though, is that most of these individuals don’t think this is an issue – because, to them, everyone is responsible for creating and nurturing their own identity. But it is easy to be of this opinion when your identity is rarely questioned.

I have heard many comments and I have been asked many questions regarding my boyfriend’s race and ethnicity (for a lot of Europeans, race, ethnicity, and nationality are interchangeable and synonymous). A friend of mine once told me that “he’s good-looking, he doesn’t look Asian at all!”, as if you can’t be good-looking and Asian at the same time; a member of my family laughed when looking at a picture of my partner and I, asking what I’d do if my children “looked like that”; after I went back to the US again, a rumor was started that I “went to America to marry a Chinese man”. Once I got into a conversation with a friend about being in Montenegro and finding a job, to which I was given advice to leave Montenegro and marry in Taiwan. I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I immediately knew what she meant, but after I asked why Taiwan, she went on to question my young man’s Americanness – by claiming he might be born in America, but that that doesn’t make him American if his parents emigrated from Asia. I tried to explain how being American works, only to be laughed off and told that I take things too seriously. Another friend randomly remembered that she had never asked me where my boyfriend’s parents were from, I’m guessing because of the ignorant perception that, to too many, being American means being white. Maybe one day, those like her will understand that, when someone immigrates into the US at the age of 20, and spends the majority of their life in the US, they are American and they say they are from the US. Someone else told me that my boyfriend would probably get mad at her if he knew she couldn’t tell the difference between the Chinese and the Japanese. A girl from a country near Montenegro once pulled her eyes back when asking about his parents. These comments and actions imply that racism against Asians and those of Asian descent is so commonplace and normalized, especially in European nations, to the point where speaking up against it is seen as overly sensitive and unfounded, regardless of how offensive it is. In some of these instances, I tried to have moderately calm and productive discussions, but it feels that most of the time, my attempts are in vain when trying to explain that one doesn’t have to only be white (or black) to be American. The only thing that I managed to do is create this false sense of respect and understanding by these people, but what does that do when their idea of a true American is so inaccurate? Why is it that when people see my partner and I together, they are more likely to think that I’m the American one, and he’s the non-American one? Why is he the one being asked where he’s really from, and I can pass as an American when my accent doesn’t show?

It’s also important to mention that a lot of these comments are new and shocking to my partner. He grew up on Long Island, which I hear was very different from the Midwest where we met, and Montenegro where I grew up. He only knows of a diverse society, he’s traveled to more places than many people know of, and his life is rich with experience and unparalleled intelligence. He also happens to be the most patriotic American I know. So it kinda sucks that his belonging to the American nation is questioned by random Europeans whose lives are so simple it hurts, or by some American whites who so obviously should move back to Europe where their hearts truly belong.

What makes this all very ironic is that I sometimes complain about how difficult this is for me, how I’m tired of the anxious anticipation I feel when people are about to ask me about my partner’s or his parents’ citizenship, how these comments frustrate me, and how infuriating it is that I’m still learning how to react properly and productively in these situations. In reality, these comments don’t put me at any disadvantage, but they do affect people dear to me, and countless Americans I don’t know. But what is the best approach? If I were to deny that he can speak Mandarin, or that someone in his family has at some point in the past immigrated into the US from Asia, just like many other Americans did, that would just fuel people’s belief that he’s just a citizen of an East Asian country living in the US. But I don’t want to deny these things, because they are what makes his experience as an American unique and American. It is unfair that he has to choose between being American and e.g. Chinese or Taiwanese, as if it’s mutually exclusive to be American and to be Asian, when in reality, the US nation encompasses countless world cultures and those cultures are the essence of being American.

P.S. Many of the points I’m making in this article were brought up by my boyfriend in our conversations and discussions. I’d like to thank him for always being willing and understanding enough to talk to me about this stuff.

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Why is the US considered the West?

Let’s ignore for a second how archaic and lazy the East/West dichotomy is or how the definition of East/West changes across regions and individuals.

Traditionally, the “West” is Europe or cultural Europe, whatever that means. According to early eurocentric genius anthropologists, the “Orient”, or “East”, actually began at North Africa and goes into Asia. What makes the two largest and most diverse continents a monolith is beyond me, to be honest.

Now back to the US. To play devil’s advocate here for a second, there are indeed many reasons why the US or even Canada is “western”. We were former combined colonies of England, Spain, and France; and we speak dialects of their languages, but languages are a horrible indicator of national identity (although still better than ethnoracial features). Also, are South American countries considered “western”? Try googling ‘Alberto Fujimori’. What about African countries? In my travels, I’ve met Europeans who think that Americans also fly east to get to Asia. Now, of course we now know the world is round, and there are more than just two sides. So given purely cultural and demographic factors, doesn’t the US fit snugly in between “the East” and “the West”? Our west coast is much closer to East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Most of our food is a result of fusion of African, Asian, and European ingredients (we arguably popularized sushi with California rolls); nothing is truly American (except maybe corn).

I wonder… Perhaps “western” is a euphemism for “developed” or even for “white”? In that case, most of East Asia is just as, if not more, developed (have you seen some of these airports in Korea?).  Western Europeans usually consider themselves “western” which makes sense to me, even though Europe is totally different from North America. Moreover, I recently learned that cultural Russians (Ukrainians and Belorussians, etc.) believe that Europe is Europe and the US is the “West”. Many Eastern Europeans don’t even consider themselves “western”. Meanwhile, in East Asia they believe that anything outside the region is considered the “West”. China is extremely guilty of sinocentrism just as Europe is for eurocentrism. So where do we draw this imaginary line? The point of division is rather subjective.

Any differences between Europe and the US (or North/South America) are just dismissed as minor by some people, while differences between the US and Asia are because the other is too “western” or “eastern”. Can we just stick to calling ourselves American and stop labeling things and people as directions on a compass? At least stop prescribing to the notion that the US is somehow “western” because Europe feels the need to assert their legacy or because certain Americans can’t get out of their comfort zone to mingle with people on the other mystical side of the “East/West” dichotomy. Perhaps Asians want to group Europe together with North American and South America when, in reality, East Asia has more in common with the latter two continents.

Can we all agree that the US is both Eastern and Western, or it’s neither? And please discard the harmful rhetoric of “western media”; it’s almost impossible to define as a monolith either and rarely ever agrees on one view.

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Americans: United we stand?

“What is your obession with race?” That’s what many Europeans and Asians have asked me. I’ve lived in at least 4 different continents, and I’ve criticized and defended the issue of race and identity in the US. Outside the US, it’s true that most countries have a clear connection between “race” and nationality. China is a huge perpetuator of this idea. There have been countless YouTube commenters who say I’m somehow a traitor to my last name or worse. If you think racism doesn’t exist in Asia, Europe, and Africa, it does.

One thing I’ve noticed in many  countries is the language used by various people of different national origin, especially by Chinese Mandarin-speaking populations, when refering to other groups of people. Apparently many Chinese, and even older Taiwanese, descent people in the US will call others ‘foreigners’ or 外國人 (Thanks Google Translate!). Many times, it’s used exclusively to refer to Euro-Americans in the US. I’ve always told family members that we’re all American, but why do you call them 外國人 as if you’re from China? Although in Europe, 外國人 refers to anyone who isn’t of East Asian descent, including African, West Asian (Middle Eastern), South Asian, and Latino descent. I think it’s about time Americans of all colors updated our language (as we’ve historically been doing through being “politically correct”, but maybe that’s just progress).

I know for Latino Americans (I don’t use ‘Hispanic’ because it implies relation to Spain more directly), there are many terms for Euro-Americans, including ‘gringo’, but I wonder if any other groups in the US have their own non-offensive terms to refer others.

As a American traveler of color

After recently reading this:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gloria-atanmo/why-more-african-americans-need-to-travel-abroad_b_8154190.html

I decided to write as another American traveler of color. As I was reading this blog, I was so surprised that even to this day, Europeans have a hard time imagining Africans are from anywhere else but Africa. Although the author’s post tends to be more forgiving and even optimistic, I can’t even imagine being literally compared to dirt, and I would go out of my way to educate them.

I found a quote from another American traveler of color saying “”I think we’re more likely to interpret bad behavior from non-Americans as being racist because of our history with white Americans. Often their impatience is just because we’re American, and we’re clueless about other people’s cultures and practices.” However, I do not think that’s always the case they’re we’re at fault for not being sensitive to their culture (unless you count racism as being part of culture). I believe they have to realize that the US is not like Europe in so many aspects, especially demographically. I’m not so unreasonable to say that Europeans (or Asians) should know everything about American culture, of course not. I’m learning a lot about their culture if they can just get this one thing right about the US.

In the end, Americans of color need to travel a lot more and show members of the Old World that we exist. And to white Americans traveling abroad, can you try to represent us too?

MTV’s White People Documentary

I’ve been seeing this on social media, but I just randomly decided to click on it and watch it. It is always very interesting to hear white people talk about race, racial issues, white privilege, and generally anything related to race, in the US specifically (racial dynamics are entirely different outside of North America, but that’s a whole other conversation). Having been in Minnesota for almost 2 years now, I would like to believe that I know white Americans pretty well (who happen to be a very predictable bunch). But it’s not that hard really – these people (Minnesotans specifically, as well as most other US whites) were raised not to “see race” as they say, which in actuality means ignoring racial issues because you don’t have to deal with them. It is very easy to pretend like everything is fine and dandy when you live in a little impenetrable white bubble where nothing can affect your life. I understand that it is hard to sympathize and relate (which it shouldn’t be), but the racial issues that the US is currently dealing with cannot be disregarded with “I see no color” or “spread the love”. It doesn’t work like that when you say that from a very privileged place and have no idea what being unprivileged in this country means.

There were many instances in this documentary where a complex issue was brought up (and even eloquently explained), and some whites still didn’t understand it. When Jose visits the Native American community (which he calls Indian…), he talks to the white teachers at the Native American school. At some point this “derogatory” Lacota term wasichu comes up, and one of the white teachers says it’s “rough” to hear it – and don’t get me wrong, she seemed like a very nice lady who has thought about race and I’m sure she’s a good person. But when you say a term like that is rough on you or hurtful for you to hear, do you think about where it came from and why it exists? It felt like throughout this whole documentary, most white people who were in it felt attacked. The Italians were talking about the East Asian community in NYC as some type of invaders, taking the land from them (wait, that sounds similar…), and they failed to reflect on their feelings. The Italian dad comments on how easy it should be for “them” to learn simple English terms, but why should they? So he can feel comfortable? So he is not irritated? And ironically, he remembers his own immigration and how difficult it was for him to assimilate and learn the language (he was far younger than some East Asian immigrants they were showing and talking about). Why is it so hard for him to understand this issue then? It was obvious that they felt like their community was being taken away from them, which I could try to sympathize with, but it seems to me that a lot of white people here feel so ENTITLED to this land that was not even theirs to begin with. Another thing that was interesting was the casually racist Southern girl explaining to the black girl what ghetto means (she was talking about how ghetto means taking off your earrings and stuff, like, do you experience anything in real life or do you get all your facts from TV?) The girl who was complaining about not getting scholarships because she is white and “discriminated against” (LOL is my only reaction to this), seemed not to be understanding the bigger picture even when she was handed the facts. And I feel like a lot (or too many) white people in the US feel this way. Like things are being taken away from them unfairly just because they were a little “naughty” in the past. It concerns me a lot.

Naturally, after watching the documentary, I read some comments and reactions which are always a blast… This guy Mark was claiming there’s this thing called “anti-white propaganda”, saying that what ‘s happening in the US is kinda how Germans are guilt-tripped because of the Holocaust and they “have to accept the euro and mass immigration as retribution”. I bet that’s really inconvenient for Germans. And I bet it’s really inconvenient and painful for white Americans to be reminded of the shameful way their ancestors inhabited and built this country.

What saddens me the most, as someone said in the YouTube comments, is that the people who this was made for were the ones who got it the least. Most feedback from white people was defensive, hostile shit that is usually what goes through their mind (but doesn’t come out of their mouth unless they get a lil comfortable…) anyway whenever race is being discussed. This is an attack, not on white people’s existence, but on the ignorance and refusal to understand the struggles of being an American of color. And the reason why everything feels like an attack I believe comes from this fear of having to live what people of color live (even though being called names in no way comes close to institutionalized oppression based on race).

Again, the scariest part is that, no matter how many posts I write, how many documentaries MTV releases, how many people of color cry and scream for justice, most US whites will still disregard it as “liberal propaganda” or some “anti-white” shit that is meant to target them and shame them just because people hate white people for no apparent reason. How self-absorbed, entitled, and BLIND do you have to be?