Identity / by Amanda Liew

So here it is. My first real rant of being abroad. I got asked the usual question again tonight - this time by a Sainsbury’s grocer - “Where are you from?” he asked. I said, “America”, and instantly I knew I answered the wrong question. He replied, “Oh, I would have thought Vietnam. Since *gestures to my face*…you know.”

I’ve dealt with this a million times before. Ever since I started uni and had to introduce myself to new people, the question has kept popping up. I’ve been reasked the “right question” a thousand times - sometimes they are direct (No, where are you really from?) and other times it’s subtler when I see in their eyes that they think I’ve answered the wrong question. Usually, I laugh it off. Usually, it’s something funny. But for some reason, tonight made me infuriated, and I didn’t understand what broke the camel’s back. I had dealt with this for so long. Why now?

Then it hit me- it’s because I’m abroad. Despite the fact that I still find the question ignorant and rude when I’m asked in America, it’s a little more understandable because maybe, giving the asker the benefit of the doubt, they assumed that everybody’s family came from somewhere. Either that or the “San Diego” response is sufficient, along with my Californian accent, that they don’t feel the need to tell me I’m actually from a different country.

Yet, while I’m abroad - whether I’m in London or Brussels or Paris or wherever, saying “I’m from America” is not a sufficient answer to them. I realized that it’s not the question that bugs me, it’s the fact that they refuse to accept my answer. I tell them I’m from America, and they correct me - because surely, someone who looks like me can’t be American, at least not a real American. And that’s what pisses me off. Yes, I’m Chinese, I completely recognize that and while I had difficulty with that fact when I was younger, I’ve come to be happy with my heritage. But I still can’t deny the fact that I’m more American than I am Chinese. I’ve been to China maybe 3 times in my life and only remember two visits - one 5 years ago, and the other 10 years ago. I grew up with American music, American food, American TV shows. I recognize American brands, know American celebrities, and went through the American schooling system. I only know 2 years worth of Chinese and even struggle with that. It infuriates me that despite all this, I’m not “American.” Who are they to tell me that I’m wrong? That when I identify with America as my home, I’m actually incorrect? That it doesn’t matter that I was born and raised the past 20 years in America, because I look different.

It makes me frustrated because there are so many better ways to ask the question. They could ask: What’s your heritage? What’s your ethnicity? Where did your family originate? All of those are acceptable questions. Because I am Chinese and my family did originated from China. But to correct me, and tell me that I’m not from America, is wrong. I am from America.

For a while, I was worried that I had no right to feel this way. That maybe this was remnants of my rejecting my culture at a younger age - I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to grow up looking “different.” But then I realized that it would be no different if I were of Jamaican heritage and grew up in Belize, or if 4 generations ago my family moved from Mexico to Ireland, or if I were German but moved to China when I was 2. I think I’m quite justified in my anger because it’s not unreasonable to become mad when someone corrects your answer as if you don’t know yourself.

I know myself, and I identify with what I consider my personal home.