Category Archives: Race

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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Homogeny is dangerous

What’s similar between Europe and Asia? Very little, you say? I propose that there’s actualy a lot in common.

This topic has been on my mind for quite some time, and it probably crosses over with other posts. It’s organized from my own experiences as an American, and citizen of the New World, living abroad.

  1. West vs East
    • This concept is the original inspiration for posting this; also Tina
    • Europe and Asia constantly talk about how different the East and West are, respectively
    • Why is there a need to draw this line with some much in common in terms of mentality?
    • Even in American literature, more antiquated terms, like “Far East” have been purged because of the Eurocentric geopolitical discourse in which such terms were used
  2. Idea of nationality
    • This ties heavily with homogeny. China is a big culprit of this concept of nationality, but European countries also exhibit this quality
    • “You can look Chinese, look Spanish, or look American”. Except one can’t look American, unless you’re Native American
  3. No problem of “race”
    • From several conversations I’ve heard from Europeans (namely Spanish) and Asians (namely Chinese), they say “Look at the US and their huge problem of race. We don’t have that here.” My ass.
    • What race? Any other ‘race’ is effectively ostracized, deported, or “taken care of” if there’s separatist sentiment in Asia and Europe. They would be lucky to have any discussion at all…
  4. Determination of identity
    • Individual identity is often determined by others and skin color (and features), as evidenced by their idea of nationality in Europe and Asia
    • It’s tough to say that appearances aren’t indicative of our identies because, in many ways, they are. However, these are factors we have choices about, such as body modification, clothing, religion, and even spoken languages
    • Most importantly, however, is our ability and right to self-identify, and I believe that isn’t the case in the countries I’ve been. “I’m Chinese because my family has been in China for several generations.” By this logic, there would be very few Americans left in the US.
    • Gender and sexuality. I’m so tired of hearing you shouldn’t do something because you’re a man or woman. “There are people throwing away their femininity because they cut their hair short”. “I can tell he’s gay by the way he moves his hands when he’s talking.” Oh dear Moses…
  5. Homogeny
    • I’ve come to the conclusion that homogenous societies foster detrimental or false beliefs about the “outside” world
    • Homegeny is easier to control because of stronger forces of groupthink. Think of communism and censorship in China and how it stifles free thinking
    • I was told by a friend that Asians and Europeans often ask about “origins” because they want to feel at ease with you. That scares me a bit… Are they unable to sympathize or get along with people who they perceive as different before even getting to know them?
    • Even Americans from more homogenous regions in the US don’t realize that the media misrepresents reality and occasionally (often) lies. Representation of people of color, anyone?
Americans

Here are some Americans for you

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