I believe that I am an American. That may sound like an odd thing to say given that I was born in San Francisco, California and that I have lived in the United States all of my life. However, often when someone describes someone as American, they are usually referring to someone who doesn’t look like me. You see, I am an American of Chinese heritage.
Not too long ago when I still lived in Oakland, CA, a bell weather of diversity, I had a confrontation with another American. We were waiting for parking spaces at a local super market. He was in front of me waiting for a person pulling out of their space. I decided to move around him so that I wouldn’t block the sidewalk. Just as I was pulling around him, he gunned his car in front of mine to take the empty parking space. I was shocked by the aggressive move, but kept driving and parked not far away. As I got out of my car and started to walk to the store, the driver yelled out, “We don’t drive like that here in this country!” I was speechless. Here was someone who never had to prove his American identity, trying to erase my American identity in one statement.
My struggles of identity began as a boy, trying to fit into a suburban life in Contra Costa County in CA during the 70s. Other children didn’t have other kids tease them with mock Chinese. Other children didn’t eat rice every day. Other children had brown, blonde or red hair. Other children were just good old American. I was not so described. I was described as Chinese, Chinese-American or Asian-American. Other kids didn’t have that hyphenation in their American-ness. They were just American. I wanted to be just American too. I didn’t want to be a hyphenated American because I didn’t feel like a hyphenated American.
Even now, the questions of my American identity often times come from unexpected people. Well intentioned friends or co-workers will often describe a person to me as American, when they mean white. Does that mean that because I am not white, I am not American or less American? Or, does it just bring up that hyphenation again?
Now that I have a daughter, these questions of identity resurface. As I look at my daughter, who is a mix of ancestors coming from China, Germany, Ireland, and England, I realize that our family is just as American as any other. No hyphenations are necessary. Why would anyone say that my daughter is Chinese-German-Irish-English-American? Just the same, no one would say that my wife is German-Irish-English-American.
Every once in a while, there are times when another American will question my place of origin. They will say, “So, where are you from?” I look them straight in the eyes and say, “I am from here. I am an American. Where are you from?”
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