Tag Archives: American

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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New York, you say?

Recently, a friend of mine, Emi, asked me to give her some photos of New York, so I went through my albums to look for ones you can’t find just by Googling. Just like foreigners usually have a misconception of the US, they also have a misconception of New York; namely that it’s only Manhattan. I wanted to represent it better. Here are some of what I sent:

2012-12-31 23.20.16 2013-05-25 17.46.35 2013-12-22 16.17.09 2013-12-22 16.17.15 2013-12-26 17.06.32 2013-12-27 13.00.02 2014-07-26 11.39.03 2014-09-07 13.37.25 2014-09-07 19.33.31 2014-09-11 17.44.49 2014-09-14 13.50.17 2014-09-14 13.50.22 2014-09-14 16.07.18 2014-09-14 18.40.35 2014-09-14 19.17.09

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Things I’ve heard on my travels…

Europe: “You’re American? But your face… But originally where are you from? But you must have Asian descent! In the movies… Immigrants weren’t in America first. All Americans are from England. I thought they were taller and fatter. I’ve never been to California. I’ve never been to Chinatown. If I’m not Spanish, then you can’t be American. We don’t have a race problem.”
“Eres estadounidense? Pero tienes rasgos… Tus padres son japoneses no? Por qué puedes usar palillos? Puedes leer esto (Kanji)? No tenemos un problema racial.”

Asia: “You’re American? Your English is so good, are you Korean/Japanese? You must be ‘mixed blood’. Americans all have blonde hair. Why aren’t you fatter? But in the movies… That’s why your skin is lighter; I wish I was as light-skinned. Your hair is too dark. Your skin isn’t white enough. Obama is African, not American, just like you’re Asian. We don’t have a race problem.”

I don’t think in any way that the US is perfect, but race is something to be discussed and not swept under the rug. . Welcome to the New World. African American history is just American history. Asian American is just American. Latino American is American. European American is just American. Only Native Americans don’t deserved to be questioned about where they’re from.

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Cost of diversity

Foreigners are the cause of racism.

Now before I get more into that, I want to say that I’m not a xenophobe. I am a descendant of immigrants, as are most Americans, believe it or not. One would think that the US couldn’t possibly be a place of xenophobia and racism then, right? Think again.

For a long time, I have viewed racism as something that didn’t apply to me. After all, I’m a New Yorker, born in a beacon of diversity. However it soon dawned on me that true equality is a very difficult thing to come by, especially because the differences between people are so observable. A friend of mine noted there is such socioeconomic disparity here. In the US, there is a structural division between racial groups, but there are also so many exceptions to this system. Every day, Americans of all colors are crossing racial lines, but in homogeneous countries, these lines are being reinforced because of limited exposure. I have spent some time wondering if racism exists in a country without diversity. The answer, in my humble opinion, is yes.

What is racism? It’s stereotyping based on perceived racial features, such as skin color. Stereotyping is prejudging people as more different or similar to a group than they actually are. Here’s a typical example: thinking somebody is troublemaker because of her/his attire and brown skin. Now think about an atypical example: believing somebody isn’t American because he/she has dark hair and yellow skin.

I would say that being abroad only solidifies the notion that being American also means being white; I’ll refer to this as the notion of “white American”. My theory is that it’s comfortable to conform to “white American” because it’s a bother to explain to each and every person, especially if you happen to be white. One very valid and common point is that in countries rearing “white American”, there is a lack of frame of reference and exposure to the outside world except through mainstream media. But what if it’s because there isn’t a good representation of Americans going abroad? What if you’re an American who believes the same?

I’m not sure how many people worldwide actually realize this but the US is an immigrant nation. Since this is true, one cannot truly have an American ethnicity. Often times, countries like China view anyone of Chinese (even East Asian) descent as Chinese, not American or Peruvian, etc. Famous examples include Gary Locke, Bruce Lee, Alberto Fujimori, Jeremy Lin, etc. I’ve met many international students who, after spending a year or more in the US, realized that “white American” is a myth (even while staying in homogenous areas, such as the Midwest). However, after returning to their home countries, they’ve also found it too tedious to convey it to their peers. Because the “white American” notion is fostered, new Americans will always continue the trend of immigrant-become-xenophobe. I hear older generations refer to white Americans as ‘foreigners’ (or a similar translation) as if they are speaking from their birth country’s point of view, and I think to myself, “You and your children are Americans!”. Either accept everyone or accept no one.

While diversity is rampant in the US, there are obviously some regions that are quite homogeneous. As a US American, I have the right to racial ambiguity. Many individuals of color may often hear the question, “What are you?” Can anyone tell me what the frick-on-a-stick that really means? As a black American, nobody is asking you if you’re from Kenya or Nigeria, or even labeling you African. As a yellow American, nobody should be asking where you’re from and labeling you Asian, while completely neglecting fellow brown Americans. I’ve rarely heard the term “European” when referring to a white American.

Here is an exemplar exchange:
A: We should toss the disc again. Let me get your number.
B: It’s <320-690-6589>.
A: My name’s <Noam>. What’s your name again?
B: I’m <Chad>. Just call or text my phone now so I know it’s you.
A: Nice meeting you, <Chad>. Maybe next time we’ll play ultimate.
B: Yeh. Sounds good. So where are you from?
A: Oh, I’m from <New York>.
B: New York! Why did you come all the way here?
A: I go to school here.
B: I study here too, but I live 20 minutes away. Were you born here?
A: No, I was born in Manhattan. I’m from New York, remember?
B: Oh right, but like, where are your parents from?
A: They’re from New York.
B: And what are they?
A: What do you mean? Like their nationality? They’re also American, but my dad’s father is Taiwanese.
B: I see. Okay so you’re Taiwanese.
A: Where are you from?
B: Oh, I’m American, don’t you know?
A: Oh yeh? You’re Native American?
B: No…

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Black Hair and blurred Uyghur name of Flight MH370

“Why do you have black hair if you’re American?” This is one of several things in common between Minnesota and China. It was said by middle school aged students. I’m more shocked by one of these two places. The misconception arises from multiple reasons, one of the culprits being earlier Western media. However, the leading culprit is the endless cycle of misinformation by local Chinese themselves. Even my host school here refuses to straight up say that I’m American, instead opting to explain in full detail why my English is genuine by going into my grandparents background and my birthplace and upbringing. Also, the parents continue to fuel this, effectively closing a necessary generation gap with grandchildren thinking the same way as their grandparents. I see very little reason why something like this would also happen in Minnesota. In the end, kids are the most honest reflection of a community’s beliefs and ideas.

On a completely separate note, a colleague of mine informed me that Chinese officials have blurred out an Uyghur passenger aboard flight MH370. What is that about? Is China senselessly pointing fingers again to justify further action against the people of Xinjiang? There are questions to be asked.

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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.

2014-06-01 09.40.05

My good friend from Urumchi, Xinjiang.

Xinjiang, Minnesota, and revelations

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[American? Impossible.]

These are the words I heard today in Mandarin. As I get getting my usual “Mexican Chicken Roll” at the nearest supermarket, the cashier asked nearby customers if they knew any English. He proceeded to explain that I was a foreigner, to which the two ladies asked what where I was from. The cashier suggested they guess, and they said Korea. He replied, “American”. They responded, “Impossible.”

Now, usually I think it’s cool when it’s difficult to guess where somebody’s from, to be categorically and nationally ambiguous. That’s the beauty of the global community. But this was exactly for the wrong reason; it was difficult to guess where because they had placed me in their own category already. Ruling out where I could be from based on my appearance? Sure. But deducting it from a language? Impossible.

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