I’ve always been asked by peers, classmates, teachers, and strangers, “what are you?” in the United States. I used to reply that I was Vietnamese and Mexican, but since I’ve grown older and learned what ethnicity was, I’ve become cheekier with my answers. Sometimes I reply that I’m human, that I’m a woman, that I’m not interested in answering, or that I’m sick and tired of being asked “what are you” in the United States like my physical features are those of an extraterrestrial alien.
Where Are You From?
In China, I’m never asked “what are you?”, but I’m always asked “where are you from?” instead. When I reply “Meiguo”, which is “United States” in Chinese, there are rarely any follow-up questions. It’s just accepted that I’m American and that I can speak from an authentic American perspective. In my first taxi ride from the Beijing Capital Airport, I was asked to explain the American political system. Since then, I have been asked about American mass shootings, elections, the constitution, the education system, crime rates, the U.S.-China trade war, and everything in between. I find myself consistently trying to explain and defend a country and its systems I often feel excluded from while I’m living in them.
Un-American in America
The majority of us in my study abroad class identify as racial and ethnic minorities. For the first time in my college education, I’m surrounded by peers that can relate to my experience of feeling Un-American in America. In China, we’ve suddenly become cultural and political ambassadors for the United States against our will. We’ve had multiple conversations in class about what it’s like to be an American minority in another country.
For myself, the experience is liberating. I do recognize the privilege of having physical features that could be considered Asian, which is probably why I don’t get stared at or asked intrusive family genetic questions on the street. However, coming from the United States where race and ethnic relations are historically and presently tense, it’s exciting to be in a country where I rarely have to think about the negative implications of my race or ethnicity.
In China, I can just be myself, lumped together with all the other American students studying abroad. I can just walk down the street, shop in a store, dance in a club, laugh with my friends, and just feel free. Now that I know what it’s like to be accepted as an American abroad, I don’t know how long it’ll take me to assimilate back in America as a racial and ethnic minority. I like being asked where I’m from. I like being accepted as an American.