I’m An American Without Being An American

Twenty20 / benjaminandrew
Twenty20 / benjaminandrew

When I left Jakarta, I was an Indonesian. But when I arrived in Australia, I was an American.

During awkward self introductions and breaks between classes, people often used my accent to initiate a conversation.

“Where are you from?” They would ask.

“Indonesia.”

They’d shake their heads, obviously dissatisfied. “You sound American.”

And then I would get into my automated spiel that, unbeknownst to me,would have to be rinsed and repeated for the next four years of university.

“Well,” I’d start, taking a deep breath and knowing that a barrage of comments would come after. “I went to an international school in Jakarta so most of the teachers were American. I also grew up watching American movies and TV.”

I wasn’t American, but in Australia, I was treated like one. They made jokes about my accent, my references, my predilection for American media. I was American, or in some cases, Canadian. My American accent sounded so thickly Californian that some people mistook me for a valley girl whenever I got too excited.

I had lost my identity overseas. People couldn’t quite understand that I was first and foremost an Indonesian with an American education. It didn’t matter than I had never spent time in the states. I was too foreign in many different ways.

Growing up, I relied heavily on the English language to communicate, and nearly discarded my Indonesian altogether. The sporadic Mandarin lessons never really interested me, and that part of my family’s culture and history embedded in the intricate characters were lost forever. I spoke English with my father, and tried to explain my thoughts in broken Indonesian to my unilingual mother. Growing up, my bookshelves bursted with books written by American authors and my television played nothing but the famed 90’s television shows from the West. I never touched the default channels that showed Indonesian shows and relied on mainstream American songs to overlay the daily Maghrib prayers exploding from every mosque in the country.

The first American I met that was in my age group was a university exchange student from San Diego. She was tall, blonde, and was exactly like what I imagined an all-American girl to be like. She was beautiful and bubbly, with an instant connection that led us to still be in contact two years later.

“You sound like an American,” she said with a smirk one day, as if she was proud that her country had made me a minion. And maybe she was, but just like everyone else, she couldn’t fit me into a box. I sounded like an American, but to her, I was not. Although to everyone else, her and I were two peas in a pod.

One night, I pulled out my skills in American Sign Language to speak to a deaf Australian, forgetting that they used Auslan, a completely different signing system. My accent transcends voice, because even to the deaf I was still American.

The moment I flew back to Jakarta as a fresh graduate, I felt like an immigrant in my own country. I was called a bule, which means foreigner in Indonesian. I struggled to speak fluent Indonesian to my coworkers and salespeople. I stammered to find the right terms. Grasping for words felt like trying to drink the water from a drizzling rain.

But when I went on a trip to the states a few months ago, I somehow felt like I fit right in. I wasn’t treated like a foreigner because I didn’t have an accent to put them off. I no longer stuck out like a sore thumb with my hard r’s and American slang like I did in Australia.

When my British boyfriend said he wanted to learn more about my culture, I taught him how to speak Indonesian. But he pushed on. “No, I want to listen to your music and watch your movies and know about your history.”

It was then that I saw myself the way everyone else did. I was not Indonesian. I was born and raised in Jakarta but growing up, I had subconsciously shunned every single aspect of my country’s culture and history in favor of America’s. I became an honorary American without realizing it.

When two Americans interned in my office this summer, I was tasked with the job of being their glorified babysitters. Instead, I became their friend. I understood their references and they understood mine. We were on the same wavelength and we managed to have similar political and social views. Aside from the odd local slang that these LA folks peppered in our conversations, I began to overlook our differences and basked in our similarities.

The internet made me think like an American, and when faced with their people, there were no barriers to stop us from connecting.

Mostly, my American-ness have been emphasized by my boyfriend’s, well, English-ness. He makes fun of the way I say aluminum or route, and he finds my American slang strange. But he knew the box I belonged in; an unlabeled crate that housed my ambiguous identity.

After awhile, I started using the word we and us to describe Americans. We don’t think that way. We’re not voting for the Republicans. We don’t really like Ariana Grande after the whole donut incident. I’ve somehow grouped myself with an entire populace. After four years of being treated like an American, I finally let myself become one, without actually becoming one.

But the Americans who read this will tell me I’m not American. And of course, I agree. I’m not American, but then again, what am I? My broken Indonesian renders me as a bule in my own hometown. My knowledge in American laws and news beats my basic understanding of how Indonesia works. My ignorance on the Indonesian media have left me out of the loop with my coworkers. No Indonesian has ever stamped me as one of them.

To these people, I’ve been too whitewashed; my opinions too liberal and my patriotism nonexistent. I’m too much of everything, but I am no one thing in particular.

Perhaps now, the question of “where are you from?” merely indicates the location printed on our birth certificate. There are so many others like me; in cultural limbo and holding on to a semblance of an ethnicity. We are the ones that pause when you ask us that question, hoping that our answer satisfies you.

“Where are you from?”

I am from Indonesia, but I don’t think like one, act like one, or know much about my country.

“Where are you from?”

You will call me an American, but I have never stayed there for longer than a few weeks.

“Where are you from?”

My blood is of Chinese and Indonesian descent, but the neurons in my brain fire thoughts that belong elsewhere.

“Where are you from?”

If I knew, I would tell you. And I wouldn’t feel so lost. TC mark

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  • http://voluptuouscara.wordpress.com Cara

    Yeah that “where are you from?” becomes increasingly difficult to answer depending on where you happen to be located RIGHT NOW. The long answer (for me, anyway) is that I’m an American-born (Brooklyn, NY to be exact) woman of southern Italian descent. In Brooklyn, where I was born and raised (and still live) it seems I’m Italian (as in “Oh you’re another Italian girl, do you like Greek guys?” as was once said to me by a man with a Greek last name who was born and raised in Queens, NY and had never even been to Greece), BUT when I spent the summer of ’97 in Italy, I wasn’t Italian at all…I was an American…as in “Luigi, why are there so goddamn many Americans in the disco tonight, they’re drinking up all the good grappa!” And when I went to Mexico on spring break oneyear in college and said I was American, a Mesican guy very angirly informed me that he was American too (Mexico is technically part of the Americas, as I did not realize while I sat in their country and swigged their tequila).

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