Reflecting on my previous post, I can almost always count on people telling me I don’t seem American.
I don’t look American, I don’t sound American, I don’t act American.
Sometimes, this is very helpful in getting to bond with local students and not having them tense up around me. Other times, it leads to extended interrogations on my origins, why I speak Mandarin, and general disbelief in what I’m telling them.
Recently, in another irritating episode, my guqin teacher asked me to be an interpreter for a guqin workshop with foreign dignitaries. This wasn’t an issue for me at all. Having done all sorts of interpretation and translation before, this would be a wonderful chance for me to help with some cross-cultural exchange (one of the aspects of the Fulbright Program) while also giving myself an opportunity to practice interpretation again.
One of the other guqin classmates interrupted us before I could respond.
“Hah!” she cackled. “What makes you think a kid like him can do English interpretation?”
Ever stoic, my guqin teacher ignored her.
“Sure, I’ll do it,” I told him.
“Good,” he replied. “I’ll send you the powerpoint later this week.”
“I don’t know what you see in him,” she shook her head at our instructor. “When’s this event happening? Monday was it? I’ll be there. Let’s see how good this kid’s English turns out to be.”
I don’t recall her being invited.
Our instructor turned over to me, “It’ll be good exposure for guqin. If we want the art to survive, it has to be able to make an impact outside of China. Who knows—maybe one of the dignitaries there will be inspired to support guqin education in the US.”
I nodded and continued practicing.
In this rather aggravating incident, I realized that my latent Americanness led quite a few people to underestimate me, which… is not necessarily a bad thing. I actually enjoy being inconspicuous. What annoyed me was how she immediately dismissed me on basis of age. Even if I had grown up entirely in China (which she assumed), I know plenty of twenty-some-year-olds who are stellar interpreters and translators despite having grown up in a non-English-speaking country.
While my Americanness is constantly questioned (or dismissed) here, I’ve started wondering what it means to be American. While most people here associate a blond-hair, blue-eyed appearance Americanness, an encounter I had in the elevator illustrated that this is a terrible heuristic.
I walked into the elevator. There was a blond woman and a Chinese man present. As we descend, the Chinese man said—in English—to the blond woman, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
“I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” she replied.
“Oh,” he looked confused. “Aren’t you American?”
I stifled my laughter. Oh, if only it were Independence Day. Wishing a Brit “Happy Independence Day” would truly be too perfect.
Then I realized. He didn’t wish me a Happy Thanksgiving, probably because he assumed I was—like him—a Chinese person who doesn’t celebrate the holiday.
Culturally, a lot of what I do isn’t “American.” I play guqin, not guitar. I write calligraphy with a brush, not a pen. I drink tea, not beer. I admire poems by Li Bai and Wang Wei, not Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.
But at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily make me Chinese. In fact, when I go out with Chinese classmates, they’re taken aback when I order tea despite everybody else ordering a Budweiser. They find it strange that I’m not acclimated to a Chinese classroom environment, and they find it even stranger when I tell them we had things called seminars which were discussion-based classes.
Having grown up in the US, many of my experiences differ from my Chinese counterparts precisely because of my environment. While I also celebrate the Lunar New Year, Qingming, and Mid-Autumn Festival, these weren’t necessarily identical to how my Chinese classmates celebrate them.
Thinking back to my JET interview, it seems like a lot of cultural exchange tends to focus on how different cultures are so that they seem exotic, fresh, and new to the other. But I disagree entirely with that perspective. Instead, I view cultural exchange as something that can be accomplished through sharing similarities. Rather than talking about football and mass shootings (seriously, these are the two main things people bring up when I mention I’m from the US), I find it much more productive to talk about how Chinese culture has adapted and changed in the US.
I remember vividly my JET interviewer looking wholly unimpressed when I said that I’d bring a calligraphy brush to Japan to show people American culture, but I still stand by that statement. If the US is indeed a melting pot of cultures, I think it’s helpful to show East Asia that their culture is represented in the pot as well. The flavors might have changed (brush lettering is one way of using the brush that Japanese shodo doesn’t have), but it starts at one shared point of culture before branching off into the differences.
Thinking about it some more, I’d bring Cup Noodles as well. There isn’t a better symbol of starving American college student than 10 cent ramen.
While these objects themselves don’t seem American by appearance, they’ve been immersed in American culture and have grown in their own way.
I suppose, in way, I like this approach because I’m like the objects—outwardly Asian, yet with a latent American twist.