As I was traveling in Xinjiang during China’s National Day holiday week, I found myself again in a completely new environment where despite having a significant non-Chinese population, still has trouble accepting an identity different than their own. Everywhere I went, from train to the plane, everyone would ask me the same question even after discovering that I am American: Why don’t you look American? This usually is a 2-part inquiry about “looking American” and whether I am “Asian American” instead of “American.” This is closely related to how culturally Chinese people like to label people like me ABCs, which in case you didn’t know stands for American-born Chinese. A clever little acronym to which I usually respond, in English, with something whimsical (for myself) like finishing the alphabet (D, E, F, et cetera). Appearing different (from expectations) does not merit assumptions, labels, or categories to be imposed onto me. I can only speculate that the need to make sense of things and conform to a common misconception that individual physical features always define your identity, culture, and even birthplace. Although language can be mutually exclusive, it often permeates through all of the previously mentioned. A commonly supplementing question is: “Why don’t you have blond hair and blue eyes?” And for those who realize how stupid that sounds, they just state, “But you don’t look American”. Whenever a sentence begins with: “In the movies,…” one should already know how full of crap that is. How can someone even say that sentence and mean it?! Unbelievable. This has even been used to counter my claims that too many people smoke in China with: “In the movies, most Americans smoke, even the women.” That is just not true, and there are more Chinese smokers than the US population. Unbelievable again! Moses, have they been conditioned to not ever question what they are shown? The answer is sadly yes.
Actually, the most helpful and least judgmental people, while I was going from place to place in Xinjiang, were Uyghur or Kazakh, a couple of the minority groups of China. Actually some of them didn’t even ask where I was from when I didn’t speak Chinese Mandarin to them, whereas the local Chinese were honestly so preoccupied with convincing me that I wasn’t American, that they were zero help. This poor excuse for trying to join all the groups together into one China reminds me of some parts of the US “integrating diversity” into a region, except opposite. It seems China is trying to integrate Uyghurs into the Chinese culture to suppress the sentiment of separatism and ethnic identity, while the US is trying to promote multiculturalism and all that jazz to show that we’re not just some homogenous population. After arriving at the airport in Urumchi , one of the things I first noticed was that the signs were usually written in two languages: large simplified Chinese and tiny Arabic script for Uyghur, often illegible. On a 3-day tour group to Kanas Lake, in the north of Xinjiang bordering Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia, I met two Chinese people around my age. One of them kept trying to explain to me that when asked why I don’t “look American”, people are actually just trying to figure out my ancestry (this is the same person who got her smoking statistics from movies). Meanwhile the other person had realized how silly it was that everyone we met asked me the same exact outdated question.
The US may be far from a perfect melting pot, but it exists and it means that anyone can “look American” and Americans can look like anyone. Thinking back to when I was in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, attempting to start my master’s degree, I was constantly questioned (usually but not exclusively by Minnesotans) where I was “really” from, as I had mentioned in previous posts. I already knew what they wanted to hear; some nation in Asia, specifically East Asia. Eventually after they tediously refined the question and got their answer about my ethnic ancestral roots, I would return that refined question out of courtesy and equal curiosity. Guess how they usually responded? American. Un-frick-on-a-stick-believable! To make matters worse, albeit not significantly, one of my professors was talking about the distinction between a language disorder and a language difference. To clarify, a language disorder is when an individual has impairments to the processing of linguistic information, either receptively or expressively. A language difference is when an individual has either an accent from the 1st language (L1) or has differences in speech due to a regional dialect, such as the New York dialect. Language difference is not considered a disorder by those who are somewhat familiar with linguistics, but I digress. Having just mentioned regional dialects as a language difference by this professor, one of my post-bachelor classmates teasingly mentions me because we usually chat about the subtle differences between the Midwestern accent and New York accent. My professor then agrees, incorrectly thinking my classmate had mentioned me because English isn’t my L1. Great… tis not a very big step up from China, especially in terms of mentality. Minnesota has even gone through great efforts to introduce diversity to the region through assignments of refugees, namely Somali and Hmong, off the top of my head. But as far as I’m concerned, I am apparently not an American in the US or China.
I wish I could change the way the world views language and identity.