Canadian comedian Russell Peters jokes that he was a rah-rah Indian until he flew to India for the first time and took one step off the plane. Assaulted by smells, noise and crowds, he realized in that instant that he was Canadian.
For me, it took a visit to the UK and a residence in Canada to realize I am American.
Sure, I’ve lived in the United States my entire life. I was born here, and I’ve carried a US passport since I was 3. I’ve voted in every presidential election since I was 18.
But American? Though technically American, this wasn’t the first (or tenth) descriptor I’d have used to identify myself.
To my parents, “Americans” were always other people, white people. Americans wore shoes in the house. Americans abandoned their kids and left them to pay for college all on their own. Americans washed their car and had birthday parties. Other people were Americans, and we, I gathered, were not.
But when I visited my parents birthplace of Taiwan, I was the American. So I could have an American breakfast, expensive corn flakes and milk were purchased for my benefit (though not at my request). That perhaps was the only time I remember “American” being construed neutrally, even positively. “America” was a positive place, a prestigious place to go. A product from “America” was greatly desired and the good kind of gift to give. “American” the adjective was negative, an excuse for my lack of sophistication, my lack of Taiwanese cultural savvy—and wow, did I lack a lot of cultural savvy. It was the scornful reason why I couldn’t speak Mandarin Chinese; it was the despicable explanation for why I forgot to greet and bow to my elders; it was the conclusion given when I sat around and watched TV during my summer vacation instead of studying. I was a dumb, lazy American.
Surely, I couldn’t be American.
It shocked me when I realized I do think of myself as one.
In college, I went to Britain, and my host kept introducing me to everyone as “the Chinese girl.” The repetition was a shock to my system. What do you mean I’m a Chinese girl? Never mind that my parents drilled into my head, “You are Taiwanese, not Chinese,” what troubled me was why I was being perceived as Asian, and not American. Why as I not the “American girl?” I was in the UK after all, with an American passport, speaking American English. Why was I not the “American?”
And that’s when I realized I saw myself as American.
Living in Canada cemented this.
I knew Canada and the United States were not the same when I moved there for graduate school. Canadian money is colorful, and their product labels are overcrowded with both English and French. The simple things you expect to be the same were not: the taste of ketchup, the milk that came with your coffee instead of half-and-half. During orientation, there was a short lecture on Canadian culture and we were warned that Canadians were a bit anti-American. Canadians, to the Canadian lecturer had a bit of minority complex vis a vis the US. Canada despite its land mass, is a much smaller country, dependent in many ways on America. We Americans were encouraged to keep this in mind and extend grace. I tried my best, but this one time it got to be too much.
It was around the Bush/Gore election, George W. Bush’s first election to the presidency, and well, the anti-Americanisms were unescapable, especially on the bus during the morning rush. As the bus edged closer and closer to the University, you were crammed closer and closer together with your neighbors. How can you not overhear the scornful conversation especially if it is loudly spoken two inches from your ear? How dumb Americans are!
Something in me snapped. And in that instant, I knew definitely and definitively that I was indeed American.