What it means to be an American

Photo courtesy of Dennis Cantrell

At a recent travel immunization appointment at Stamps Health Center, the doctor was surprised to hear of my plans to visit India for a friend’s wedding.

“India? What’s an oriental guy like you going to India for? Isn’t that backwards?” He laughed.

It was probably the worst attempt at small talk a doctor’s ever made to me, but I needed my anti-malarial pills, so I smiled politely. Inside, I was bewildered, wondering if this educated man simply saw me as a rug or a teapot with the wrong shipping label affixed.

Checking my email later that day, my cursor hovered over the Stamps Health Survey for a moment. Do I actually fill it out and say something this time? No, it’s not worth my time or theirs to complain. I got my shots and pills quickly, who cares about how I felt? On the scale of things that impact me, racial microaggressions probably fall somewhere between Starbucks baristas not leaving room for cream in my coffee and having to stop at a red light for too long walking to campus.

Later that night at a party, I told this story to a friend, who also happens to be Asian American, along with my decision to simply brush it off.

“But isn’t that just playing into the quiet-Asian stereotype?” she asked, “If none of us say anything, will anything ever change?”

Frankly, for most of my life, nothing really had to be said. I grew up in New York City and went to college in Boston. Being raised in a large, diverse metropolis, people don’t really think about who is and isn’t an American, and don’t really care about where you come from. Yet since arriving in Atlanta for graduate school, being an Asian American has invited some fairly obtuse comments.

“Your English is so good”

“You see, out here in the real America … ”

And of course, the ubiquitous “But where are you really from?” My favorite “Where are you really from” was from an Uber driver who felt the need to explain her rationale. “‘Cause you ain’t white, and you ain’t black, and I don’t think you’re Hispanic … ?” she said, her voice trailing off, waiting for me to validate her intuition.

Here’s the thing — I am an American. I was born in Manhattan, and raised in Queens, New York. As I am walking down the street alone with my thoughts, my inner monologue happens in English. Sometimes I’m thinking about when I’ll start watching House of Cards again. Sometimes I’m deciding whether I should go to Moe’s for dinner or just scrounge around the fridge. Sometimes I’m remembering my friend shotgunning a Natty Light at our last 4th of July barbecue. I’m probably thinking about a lot of the same things you are.

So when you shout “Ni hao” or “Annyeonghaseyo” or “Konnichiwa” at me on the street, waiting for me to respond, you’re not being polite. You’re reminding me that despite me having lived in the United States my entire life, you still see me as being less American than you are, simply because I ain’t white, and I ain’t black.

So what does it mean to be an American? It’s a simple, yet highly contested question still animating our political discussions today. As a nation of immigrants, the concept of heritage divides us in as many ways as it unites. I cannot speak for all ethnicities. What I can say, however, is that the social progress so desperately needed in this country will creep to a halt so long as any group in this country sees themselves as more American than another — more entitled to its rights and privileges, more deserving of its wealth, and more worthy of God’s blessing.

In the end, I deleted the survey. This isn’t a problem with one particular doctor or Uber driver. As a minority, enduring ignorance simply comes with the job description. It is frustrating at times, but instead of getting outraged, or counting down the days until I can move back north or out to California, I’ve come to embrace my responsibility as a minority. As I struggle to share my story with others, maybe I’ll understand theirs better as well. As we all work to dismantle stereotypes one interaction at a time, I hope that we can build together a common understanding of what it means to be an American.