To Be an American

Immigrants and sojourners in different countries often feel an increased attachment to their national identity. For example, while at home in France, someone may feel strongly their regional, religious, or class identity, when residing elsewhere, their Frenchness may become an increasingly valued and noted aspect of self-identity.

For me in China up to this point, the experience has been different. At home in the U.S. many of my lifestyle choices (vegetarianism, being areligious, not celebrating Xmas, not being willing to drive on a daily basis, and intentionally avoiding chain restaurants and big box stores, etc, etc) are outside of what is typical, but by no means are they extraordinary. Furthermore, socioeconomic segregation and regional cultural differences in the U.S. are such that we mostly find ourselves rubbing elbows with people who share at least some subset of our atypical values and practices (and, in fact, our move to Vermont was to some extent self-segregation).

Here in China, however, things are different. The Chinese assumption of and emphasis on cultural uniformity combines with a stereotypical view of Americans that leaves little room for people like me and my family, and little opportunity for us to explain ourselves and be comprehended. What is American food like? The assumption here is that Americans eat hamburgers and fries at every meal. If you don’t do that, then what are you? In reciprocating dinner with our Chinese friends, I find it very stressful to figure out what to cook since they are going to be expecting “American” food, but that is not what I cook. I think I have decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner for them since that is both true to my practices and defensibly American.

All this combines somewhat uncomfortably with the fact that most of the American expats I have met here do embrace stereotypical American-ness (maybe embrace is the wrong word, exude, perhaps). Further, both small and large-scale expat events that I have attended – some of which are offered to the larger GZ community with the intention of fostering understanding and goodwill do not represent what I take to be the diversity of practices and values present in the United States. Instead, they affirm Chinese expectations of uniformity. For example, the Consulate “Holiday” party was really a Christmas party. Santa and Mrs. Claus were there to take pictures with the Chinese families who had been invited, and the guests were welcomed with a “Merry Christmas” by the Consul General. Folks ate mac ‘n’ cheese, and chicken nuggets, and decorated sugar cookies while a slideshow of Christmas images and Christmas music played. There was not so much as a dreidl in sight, not to mention any acknowledgment that Christmas is not everyone’s holiday.

Thus, I find myself increasingly doubting my American-ness. Maybe I am just not a true American at all – that is, after all, what the Republicans have been telling me for quite some time. If I am an American, what is it that makes me so? What does it mean to be an American?

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One Response to To Be an American

  1. Janna Clar says:

    One strategy I used in China, when Chinese people were baffled by my seeming “un-American-ness,” was to tell them some stereotypical views of Chinese that are held by many Americans and ask them if they (and all of their friends/family) fit the bill.

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