I have always resented it- that stupid red, white and blue sticker that I carry around on my forehead, for the entire world to see and judge accordingly. I hate the assumptions that come with my nationality (ignorance, materialism, and falseness, to name a few). I hate knowing what image comes to people’s mind when they find out what I am. For me, being an American is like having a really dirty secret, and an obvious one at that.
Fortunately, when I’m in Europe I can try my best to blend in with the masses. So long as I don’t speak, and they don’t really look at my clothes, or my shoes, or my face, it tends to work for at least a minute. At the end of the day, I may not look European, but at least it’s not immediately apparent. My time spent living in Asia and South America, however, has been another story entirely. Peruvians would affectionately refer to me as “gringita” or little white girl. Any time I stepped into a taxi or a market, I had to bear the monetary inflation that accompanies my ethnicity- the paler the skin, the higher the price. I guess I can consider it payback for years of white privilege. It was with deep sadness one day that I realized I’ll always be a foreigner to Peruvians, always an outsider. I could live in Cusco until the end of my days and I’ll always get ripped off in taxis and addressed in broken English before Spanish.
Living in Korea is not much different. When I’m not getting stared at in the subway, or having my students point out my racial differences (“Teacher, you have a big nose!”), I’m having language lessons dumbed down to suit my nationality. When I asked a Korean coteacher how to say “see you tomorrow,” he waved me off with, “Just say ‘Goodbye.’ Everyone knows what it means.” When I told him I wanted to learn how to say it in Korean, he replied, “We know you’re American. We don’t expect you to speak another language.” Hmmm. Interesting.
The truth is, I love learning new languages. I love other cultures, and exploring new places, hence why I came to Korea in the first place. Unfortunately these passions aren’t as apparent as my nationality, so it’s often assumed that I’m entirely clueless. Yes I’m an American. Yes I can find Tuvalu on a map. Yes, I know these two things are contradictory. But the problem is, no one will ever know. Never have I ever been asked what three nations occupy the island of Borneo (Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei) or how to bless a sneeze in Russia (будь здоров!). I swear to God I’m cultured. I was just issued the wrong passport.
I’ll never be one of those people who have an American flag outside their house, but I’ll also never be one of those people who say they’re Canadian when traveling (despite my love for Canadians). I dislike the often accurate assumption that Americans are arrogant and ignorant, so I’ll leap at the opportunity to prove people wrong. Why hide behind the maple leaf when I could change at least one person’s mind about the fifty nifty?
Living in Korea has taught me to really appreciate the fact that Americans value and encourage creativity, and individuality, something that is not emphasized in Korean schools. Where I grew up, an education was more than filling your empty vessel of a mind with knowledge, but teaching you how to apply it, how to think for yourself. Education was cultivating one’s soul. Perhaps that’s why I became a teacher. I’ve always really valued education and am really grateful for the schooling I have received thus far in life.
I guess this entry’s about owning who you are, and being proud of where you come from. I may dislike the American mentality, and not want to live there when I’m older, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not proud of my home. If for no other reason, the way I think today, and the opportunities I have to experience other parts of the world are a result of my upbringing in America, and I wouldn’t sacrifice that for anything. The more time I spent overseas, the more I can appreciate the personality traits unique to my country, and the Western mindset that has helped me achieve so much in my lifetime.
So thank you Uncle Sam for this leg up. Just don’t stand next to me. I still don’t want people to know we’re related.