Tag Archives: identity

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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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.

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My good friend from Urumchi, Xinjiang.

Xinjiang, Minnesota, and revelations

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