Living in different places outside of the US has given me the opportunity to work through and refine my self-identity. Specifically, my experiences in South Africa and China have helped me to better articulate what it means to be an “American” with a face like mine.
South Africans and Chinese alike have a very specific conception of who is American. In South Africa, the people I met usually immediately assumed that I’m “China.” That is a term used to indiscriminately refer to any person who looks East Asian regardless of her/his nationality. It presumes that the person hails from that country. However, after Ban Ki Moon became the Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2007, “Korea” entered into the general South African imagination of East Asians. What that means is that an East Asian-looking person could now either be “China” or “Korea.”
Indeed, the term “China” negates the fact that South Africa has its own population of South Africans whose ancestors left China for South Africa in the mid-19th and early-20th century. Darryl Accone (All Under Heaven) and Ufrieda Ho’s (Paper Sons and Daughters) memoirs best narrate this part of South Africa’s past. Although their great grandfather or grandfather arrived in South Africa at different historical moments, Darryl and Ufrieda were born in and are citizens of South Africa. In spite this fact, they are both viewed as perpetual foreigners in South Africa – similar to Asian Americans in the US. Further complicating this “outsider” identity, South African-born Chinese are also perceived as being racially “White.” The “honorary white” status that was bestowed upon Japanese investors by the Apartheid government in the 1980s undermined the fact that the Chinese population was legally classified as “non-white” (alongside Blacks, Coloreds, and Indians) throughout the apartheid period. The exclusion and racialization as well as self-identification of this population is analyzed in Yoon Jung Park’s book, A Matter of Honour.
Although I speak English with an American accent, it was difficult at times for South Africans to believe that I could be American or come from America. I’m convinced that oftentimes when waiters or waitresses (okay, one of my partners had pointed out to me that, depending on the area, they could mostly be Zimbabweans, not South Africans) indicated that they couldn’t hear or understand me, it wasn’t because I spoke too softly or with a heavy American accent. Rather, it was because they couldn’t fathom that I was speaking English to them. It could’ve been a moment of cognitive dissonance that would pass once I repeated myself one or two times. Among South Africans with tertiary education or who have traveled outside the country, my accent and the way I speak English (it’s said that Americans swallow our words because we speak too fast) are sufficient evidence that I’m American. But, when a South African absolutely couldn’t imagine the words “Asian” and “American” being put side-by-side, I’d settle by telling them that I’m “Asian,” which is a category only used to refer to South Asian Indians. In the South African context, I viewed that category as allowing me to claim a “person of color” identity. I could have said that I’m “colored,” but being a foreigner, it would be more complicated to justify.
While I was perceived as “China” and “White”(read About) in South Africa, in China, particularly Guangzhou (a global city and “workshop of the world”), the people presumed that I was one of them, a (ethnic Han) Chinese. As one of them, I’m naturally yellow-skinned. Some taxi drivers had said that by listening to my accent when I speak Chinese to them, they could tell that I’m not from China. They’d guess that I’m Singaporean or Malaysian. (When I studied in Beijing in the late 1990s, some Chinese had assumed that I was Japanese, mainly because of the way I dressed.) However, almost all Chinese struggled to grasp with the idea that I could be American. Among this large group of Chinese, a common question was whether I’m mixed blood (混血)? Unlike South Africans who would be satisfied with hearing my American accent, these Chinese inquisitors would interrogate my genealogy. This interrogation seemed necessary because I disrupted their sensibility. I don’t have a sharp nose, blue eyes, or blonde hair. Additionally, I don’t have white, “almost-translucent” skin. Some would stretch their imagination and asked if my husband’s American. In their collective imagination, Americans are white people, who are “natives” of the US. One way or another, the Chinese had to find evidence of ”native” blood in me before conceding that I’m American. (When pressed against a corner by those who must find an Asian root in me, I’d tell them that I’m Vietnamese, which is also true.)
In the South African and Chinese contexts, “American” is unequivocally synonymous with “White.” Some would argue that this view has been shaped by Hollywood that’s predominantly “white” in front of and behind screens. That is, the lack of non-white bodies on the silver screen has informed South African and Chinese people’s conception of the US as a “white” country. Everyone else in the US must, then, be foreigners, forever bounded to their places of origin. This view is partly accurate. However, in trying to rationalize such phenomenon in both places (amnesia in South Africa that Chinese-looking persons could possess other nationalities and in China that Chinese people have been in the US for many generations), we shouldn’t forget the history of colonialism that has, on the one hand, elevated the position of the West and white bodies in the capitalist world system and, on the other hand, exploited and marginalized those from the periphery. In their own ways, the fact that a Chinese-looking person cannot be American retains the colonial hierarchy of power.
What then does being “American” mean to me? It has become more than ever before a politicized identity. By insisting on being seen as an American (not just Asian American), I’m also demanding that the historical contributions of overseas ethnic Chinese in the US – and globally – to not be forgotten. Furthermore, it is actually a position against narrowly defined nationalism. It is to tell Chinese nationals that I and other ethnic Chinese have a history, too, that cannot be submerged into a singular “China” narrative. It is also to remind white Americans that I’m (and others like me are) just as American as they are even if the world only recognizes them.