Orientation & Reorientation: My Identity Abroad

orientation | noun | /ˌɔriɛnˈteɪʃən / 1: the action of orienting someone or something relative to the points of a compass or other specified positions. 2: a person’s basic attitude, beliefs, or feelings in relation to a particular subject or issue. 3: familiarization with something.


Last week I sat in a lecture hall with about 46 other English language assistants from all around the world (Canada, India, Ireland, Jamaica, New Zealand, UK, and US). It was our journée d’accueil (Welcome Day) to Academie Nancy-Metz. I listened attentively as our hosts gave us an overview of what we would be doing this school year.

Introductions were made, classroom management tips were given, and lesson planning resources were distributed. But for me, these were the words that stuck:

“For many of the students you are working with, you will be the first person that they have ever met from your country.” 

“You are a representative of your country.”

“You are here to teach English, but also to teach your culture.”

As I heard our hosts say these words, I couldn’t help but feel extremely self-conscience about my identity as an Asian American. Maybe it was because during introductions I had noticed that there were very few other people who might identity as a person of color. Maybe it was because one of the hosts had leaned over during introductions and asked me if I was doing double duty as the Chinese assistant. Maybe it was because during a bathroom break, one of the other assistants asked me if I was the Chinese assistant.

These triggers caused my mind to wander…

Will French students question the legitimacy of my “American-ness” because I’m not white?

Will they question my ability to teach American culture because I’m not white?

Will they question my ability to teach English because I’m not white? 

OK, we get it. I am not white.

Perhaps some people might be wondering, so what? What’s the big deal? Just tell people you’re American. They’ll get it. They’ll believe you. Start speaking English. They’ll hear you. They’ll stop asking questions soon enough.

To the people out there who already understand my frustration, you know that soon enough is already too late. The first “where are you from?” is the start of a slippery slope.

To the people out there who don’t understand my frustration, let me briefly lay it out for you.

  1. I’ve grown up in the US being routinely told by my classmates that my successes and failures were due to my race. Forget personal work ethic.
  2. Strangers commonly walk by me in the US and shout “konichiwa” or “ni hao” or “anyong haseo.”
  3. Since coming to France I’ve been asked by no less than 2 teachers and 3 other assistants if I am the Chinese assistant. But who’s keeping count?
  4. I’ve introduced myself to the French students and in each class at the end of the presentation at least one student will inevitably ask one of the following,
    1. What are your origins?
    2.  Do you speak another language?

At first, I tried not to think too much about it. I had read some blogs about being an American person of color abroad. I knew to expect these questions, but something that the blogs didn’t warn me about was the fatigue associated with repetition. And therein lies my frustration because after a while, you really do start to wonder whether or not people see you as a legitimate American.

The identity issues continue to get more complex as I think about the concept of foreignness and the many different ways someone can be “othered.” In the US, I get questioned about my foreignness based on my appearance. In France I get questioned about my foreignness based on my language ability. I tell people I’m American, then I usually get a follow-up question about my origins based on my appearance. To throw yet another wrench in the story, while living here, I’ve run into students from China who have come to France as exchange students. When I tried to communicate with them in Chinese, they also questioned my foreignness in relation to them based on my Chinese language abilities.

Identity, it’s complicated. And since coming to France, I’ve been forced by everyone’s constant questioning to think about what exactly is it that makes me American. Perhaps all people who live abroad for an extended period of time spend time reflecting on their national identity. Or perhaps it’s just what happens when you are an American person of color abroad.

Am I American by virtue of being born in America? Am I American because English is my native tongue? Am I American because I vote? Am I American because I drive on the right side of the road? Am I American because I’ve been raised in an environment where “rugged individualism” is a prized characteristic? Am I American because I eat peanut butter and jelly?

I would like to say that these are some of the things that make me American, but really these can’t be the only things. Because what about Americans who are naturalized citizens? What about Americans who don’t know how to drive? What about Americans who are allergic to peanuts?

There are endless possibilities and combinations of traits that one might classify as American. It’s not as if because you can’t eat peanut butter and jelly you are suddenly not American. It’s not as if there is only one way to be American or as if there is a threshold for the number of traits you have to meet to identify as an American. (Ok, so technically the process of becoming a naturalized citizen tries to quantify American-ness.)

But that’s exactly my point! How do you even go about quantifying something as fluid as an identity? If being born in America legally makes me American then why is it that in the US and even more so abroad, I can be made to feel less American than my white counterparts?

In some ways it doesn’t seem quite fair. Having to question and justify my identity is tiring. Why is it that I have to spend so much time validating and explaining my existence to others? Wouldn’t it be nice to save that energy for something else?

To that I say, maybe.

On good days, I like to tell myself that the energy spent is not all for naught. In many ways I am grateful that I have been forced to think about my identity. Because in trying to unravel and explain the nuanced and layered parts of myself, I have come to the conclusion that we are all made up of complexities, some more so than others. And as compassionate human beings we shouldn’t exploit the complexity of others by ignoring our own privileges and assuming everyone’s experience is the same.

On bad days, I like to wish that we could just burn it all down and deal everyone an equitable hand of cards from the very beginning.


So back to the point. What makes me American in spite of the questions of others?

As of now, I think it’s my ability to call the US my home, a place I might want to return to, a place where I could see myself contributing to the community, a place in which I feel invested, and a place in which others want me to stay.

If I started having these same feelings towards another place could my identity change?

I would say yes.

That’s the beauty of movement. Your identity has to change as a result of it because you will create relationships with places and people that orient then reorient who you were before. And I am OK with that.

3 thoughts on “Orientation & Reorientation: My Identity Abroad

  1. This is such a fantastic and important post, especially for white Americans. Thank you so much for teaching us and helping us to see your perspective. I think you’re right to identify however you choose, and then we.follow suit. – use your unique stance and opportunity to open up others’ minds to different faces, backgrounds, and experiences within American life 🙂

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  2. I wish I could like this a million times! I loved this so much I had to really think about how to respond. I recently posted about the topic of identity, but I’m starting to think that this is also something I should write about because it’s so important (https://carolinepostgrad.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/creating-a-new-race/)

    As a biracial American, I’ve gotten the question “where are you from” way too many times, but because I was born and raised in America and I am half white, I answer honestly with America. However, this never seems to be enough and then I am asked either “where are you *really* from” or “where are your parents from.” I have struggled with both of these because 1) I am really from America, but I know what they’re trying to hint at and over time it has made me question how “American” I really am, and 2) none of my white friends are ever asked where their parents are from, and it’s intrusive to say the least. In France, the “what are your origins” question has also made me feel not authentically American, like I’m not the right type of American for this job. I know it’s not always meant to be inappropriate or uncomfortable, that some people are truly interested in understanding why I look the way I do, but it’s made constructing my own identity, my own view of myself, extremely difficult. It’s as if no matter where I go, I am never enough of something. When I am in Malaysia I am not Chinese enough, when I am in America I am not white enough.

    I love what you said about rethinking your identity. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I am fortunate enough to be a part of two cultures, to share this uniqueness with others and help the world understand that identity is more than race and language and customs.

    Thank you so much for this post. You’ve struck a chord with at least one person in a similar situation, and I am so thankful to know we are not alone. ❤

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  3. Thanks for writing this! Americans have such a complicated relationship to national identity and being abroad definitely amplifies that. I really appreciate your thoughts on being an American POC abroad!

    Like

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