Like an American

“We just got back from Sweden. She went to an international school. So, you don’t need to speak any Chinese to her,” says the dad as he brings in his daughter for a placement test to determine her English level.

“Uh okay, no problem,” I pipe up.

There is definitely no danger of me speaking Chinese to your child, I add silently.

I feel like I talk all the time about how odd it is to be an American born citizen of Korean descent in China, but it’s something that never stops being part of my daily life.

“Teacher, you Chinese?” and “Teacher, where do you come from?” popped up again in my 7-10 yo class, a class that I see week after week, and to who I have repeatedly explained my background. (To be fair, my Chinese keeps improving,  and when they talk to me in Chinese I understand and respond in English which can be confusing for them)

When I visited my friend’s hometown last weekend, her uncle wanted to know why I didn’t teach Korean instead of English, because he didn’t understand I wasn’t actually born and raised in Korea.

It’s harder for me to explain myself in Chinese, as I haven’t been able to find a word to satisfactorily define ethnicity. If I say I’m Korean, it sounds like my nationality is Korean. Saying that I’m American and my parents are from Korea takes time, and is still sometimes strange for people to understand. Having your cultural background not match your passport is a foreign concept, in more ways than one.

When I went to register my residence at my local police station, the staff member went to go get her friend to show me to her. They couldn’t believe their eyes that my passport was US.

That in itself is interesting for me, as there really isn’t one racial identity that constitutes America.  (Or at least, there theoretically isn’t supposed to be.) At home, I just tell people I’m Korean, and they implicitly understand that it’s my ethnicity but that I’m also American. As reflected in the colloquial language, it takes one word for me to express my identity in American English, and it takes me two full sentences in Chinese.

I am consistently disappointed by the news from America, and disheartened that groups that think that America =white are gaining strength. Nonetheless, I’m still proud of my country and think it’s cool that the melting pot/tossed salad concept that anyone can come from anywhere and be American is a tenet.

That ideology may be under threat, but it’s still intact, I hope.


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