Happy Fourth of July to all you Americans out there!
Over the past month in Bangkok, I have thought more about my “American identity” (I put that in quotes because let’s think about what our national identities even mean) than I have in over a year. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about American identity from different slants and very complicated angles, in light of my personal identity crisis, in light of what I am going to call a current (US) national identity crisis, and in light of various global crises that should prompt us all to think about privilege, power and identity.
Personally, I have wrestled with my American identity for years, as a Chinese-born American who really has no cultural identification with China at all, especially when I go abroad and am hurled into the midst of various ethnic and national stereotypes, judgments, misconceptions, etc. that are different from those that I do not often experience in America. Nationally, I think about what makes us “proud to be American” and what does that mean? Historically, America is plagued by a dark and violent history of hate, segregation and prejudice. Today, racism in its various ugly forms is more real than ever and our nation continues to experience manifestations of socioeconomic inequality, prejudice, intolerance, ignorance, selfishness and just plain evil. Is it American food that sets us apart? Because most of our food is from other places. Our accents, pop culture, sense of fashion … what exactly? Are you proud to be an American? Have you ever had to “prove” or defend your American identity to anyone? If someone questioned it, would you care and why? What part of being mistakenly identified bothers you?
These are questions I’ve lately been wrestling with a lot, as Thai people often doubt that I’m American or may address me in broken Chinese after their Thai is met by my confused grimace. If or when they do address me in Chinese, they often receive an even more severe grimace lol. When I find myself getting frustrated (which is more often than I’d like), I think about an aspect of my invisible “western” privilege – how my worldview and attitudes toward both other Americans and people of other nationalities has been shaped by where I was raised.
Part of being privileged (American, European or “Western” in general) is that many of us have been accepted, tolerated and understood by our society for so much of our lives. As a result, we expect people (both other Americans and the world) to treat us with respect, politeness and even reverence at times. Privilege is so multifaceted and I am becoming more aware of its different features than ever. It is not just wealth and status; it also includes racial and ethnic understanding, tolerance and “admission” or acceptance into the dominant ethnic community as a result. As an Asian girl growing up in a privileged Caucausian family in the US (shoutout to my family; love you guys and am so grateful), I have never not been accepted or welcomed into a community in the States or been denied anything because of my race or ethnicity. It has rarely ever been questioned. That is INCREDIBLE privilege.
Note: This is a complete mind-dump of many of my thoughts from the past month, so feel free to disagree or converse with me about this, I would love your opinions!
When I get offended by various interactions of mistaken identity, I have come to the conclusion that it is partly because of my own pride, selfishness and privilege, because I too am (believe it or not!) American and have this engrained sense of entitlement and privilege that I’ll be respected and understood by others wherever I go. I have to fight an internal struggle to not get offended and defensive when people question my national, cultural and ethnic identity.
Today, our world faces many crises, one of which is a global refugee crisis, where millions of people are finding themselves displaced, stateless and seeking asylum (any national identity issues I possibly have pale in comparison), another of which is severe ethnic and religious violence, and others which underlie them all are racism, prejudice and intolerance. Who or what are we going to identify with? As Americans, how do we define ourselves? Are we going to meet hatred with more hatred and intolerance? Or are we going to work for peace, reconciliation, empathy and love? I know I am pushing back a lot here against this “American identity” and white privilege, but at the same time, I believe part of the “Americanness” that we take pride in is individuality and the freedom to craft our own identity – this has collectively come to define the “American identity.” That freedom, privilege, whatever you want to call it, is truly a gift, and if you have been graciously granted it, you can actually use your privilege for good! Firstly build gratitude and empathy for those whose identities have been snatched and trampled over (look around your neighborhood, city, etc.) and secondly use it creatively and graciously to give to others who are not as privileged.
As we Americans and global citizens celebrate another fourth, I challenge us all to reflect on the identities that we have crafted and to brainstorm how individually, if we each put values of love and empathy before arrogant nationalism or entitlement, our identities can shake and shape the collective American identity.
*image: Manzanar Relocation Center (in distance), Ansel Adams, taken from: When America Interned People Because of Their Race