On Becoming American

I learned early on that I could never be American. I knew I could never tell the story of having been teased by a boy named Jimmy Chestnut who would later give me a Crackerjack ring while eating snow cones after a football game.

I didn’t know this when I arrived at JFK and found my internet lover standing outside the gate beside a large Indian family. I had several romantic scenarios I rehearsed and internalized so intently, probably with the hope that they’d come true. Instead I found myself in a smelly cab behind a plexiglass barrier looking outside the window, deciding that whoever this stranger was beside me, I was going to make a life with her and make this chilly new country my home.

I was in my early twenties when I moved halfway around the world, naively thinking I could start over and integrate myself quickly since I was raised on American television, sang Britney Spears songs and ate my share of Trix (because Jerry Seinfeld said it was his favorite). I believed I was young, educated and smitten enough to make things happen, that even if my vowel sounds were too short and my consonants rolled off too distinctly from my mouth, I would speak and the world would open up to me and the people I would meet would pause to hear what I wanted to say.

They paused. They also squinted their eyes and wrinkled their foreheads and said, “What?” To return the favor, I struggled to understand how differently the words sounded from their lips than in music videos and TV shows, often nodding in acknowledgment just to avoid the embarrassing exchange of “I’m sorry?” and “Say that again?” I limited my responses to single words and avoided situations where I had to raise my voice or give long-winded explanations. I pretended to be shy and wrote long emails instead.

I was jealous of second generation immigrants and how they completely shed their parents’ accents and spoke so perfectly, as if their faces didn’t belong to their words. I envied the fact that strangers would meet at parties and quickly find common bonds like schools and friends or having grown up in small towns in states whose names I never even heard before. Most of all, I became annoyed that my sentences began with “Back home,” and “In my country,” both introductions that would result in minds wandering off to the strange place I was describing, one they would never know but that for me was the only resounding truth I couldn’t leave, at least not for this place that couldn’t understand what I was saying.

I found comfort in the warm arms that saved me from my first brutal winter that coerced me to accept a down jacket I felt was unnecessary and made me look like Kenny from South Park. I appreciated her straight face when I asked how to work the shower, her humorous shrug when I shrunk my first cashmere sweater, and her helpfulness when I created a kitchen bubble bath by using dish soap in the dishwasher.

Still there was the world outside the walls I shared with my reason for being there. It was a place where even the pigeons were fat and perfectly good food was left on plates or thrown in the trash, where voices were three levels louder and seemed to spare no minor emotion or the most irrelevant thought. It was a culture that welcomed my blind broadcast of resumes I mailed to a hundred companies with fingers crossed; where one hired me upon being impressed by my graduate degree but assigned me to mop floors anyway. It was an establishment that felt that in spite of coming from a little known American colony I wasn’t ready to face clients, but had to take orders from a supervisor who insisted on spelling “boxs” and said I was a clueless foreigner when I pointed out that it’s not “should ‘of’ been.”

I joined the subculture of new immigrants who said little and worked without complaint in the backs of kitchens and offices. I decided it was better to pretend I had nothing to say than to voice an opinion that was unpopular, or worse, incomprehensible. Instead I spent my time watching tongues and lips mouth words, laughing at punch lines I said under my breath in a perfectly fake American accent. I rushed to get a seat beside gossiping Filipino nannies on the train just to feel like I could hear and be heard in this strange, universal standard of a country I kept insisting was my home.

I didn’t flinch when I got called a Chinese cunt by an angry customer (I’m not Chinese). I didn’t announce that revolving doors scared me only a little less than expletives uttered in subway fights. I graciously thanked a white woman who took the time to teach me “a popular American gesture” (the high five), resisting the urge to show her another popular gesture I also already knew. I recruited teenagers to teach me the difference between Pixie Stix, Swedish Fish and Jujubes. I apologized profusely when I offended a white friend when I picked up the phone by saying “What’s up, cracker?”

The awkward silences remained season after season, and then decreased year after year. Before long I found jobs in the frontlines and could participate in political discussions thanks to spending all my non-speaking time reading online news and the NYT Magazine. In interactions I had answers to the most meaningless how-are-yous? and began to be able to describe neighborhood changes and my interactions with crazies throughout the years. I racked up enough days to recall a time when tomatoes were 69 cents a pound (they are now $2.69), and how hard it was to quit smoking when they raised packs to $5.90 (they are now $11).

Most of all I still shared a life with the reason I dropped out of my world and became mute for several years. To that reason I added many, many more, and realized that it is not race nor geography, but time and what you contribute, and how hard you work for your dreams that makes you finally and fully assimilated. That, and finally having a voice that is heard. TC mark

image – Werner Kunz

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  • chelseafagan

    This is awesome.

  • prettypetty

    #relevanttomylife

  • NatalieKeshlear

    Yes :) Amazing. I feel the same way but about my life in Germany.

  • secret

    I am totally on that mute phase. Studying here in germany makes me wanna commit suicide sometime. and as lame as it sounds this GMH.

  • Pfft

    i understand all of this so well. thank you for writing this x

  • Brooke Lin

    oh my god. you rock my world. I've been waiting for someone to articulate my feelings for so long.

  • Aelya

    I moved to Canada the summer before starting the 4th Grade. Although my experience was not as difficult as yours (I kicked everyone's asses in French despite never being exposed to it and years of watching Nick probably helped with the culture thing?), there were times of alienation.

    Loved this article and its honesty.

  • http://christinasanchezelloso.blogspot.com CSE

    Exactly what I am going through right now. -23 year old Filipina who moved to Barcelona a year ago with only 1 month of Spanish lessons

  • http://twitter.com/suntwee Mariesa Samba

    I love everything about this piece minus the second to last sentence

    “To that reason I added many, many more, and realized that it is not race nor geography, but time and what you contribute, and how hard you work for your dreams that makes you finally and fully assimilated.”

    Perhaps race wasn't an inhibiting factor in your “full assimilation,” but it is for many. As a first generation American, I know from the experiences of my parents, aunts, and uncles that race is very much an inhibiting factor in the day to day. Also, that sentence makes it sound as if you're purporting an ethnicity theoretical framework, that the borders of race/language/religion can be transversed by adopting a culture at the price of losing touch with one's own. I don't agree with that sentiment; “assimilation” should be about forming a niche where one feels comfortable, not taking on a new cultural identity for the sake of “assimilating.”

    • Greg

      Great point

  • http://twitter.com/icameasgold Tanya Donascimento

    As a second generation American I was always jealous of first generation immigrants who still had their accents. I always feel like I'm faking my Hispanic culture. First generation immigrants always seem to be in tune with their original culture, where I am not at all. Maybe I just assimilated too well.

  • Maia

    There are certainly moments I am “mute” — but certainly not for lack of something to say nor of being understood.
    Often, it's for lack of simple human contact. Stepping out of your comfort zone certainly entails a higher degree of caution and a more stringent method of calculating risks, and this limits your social ability. Without an established support system, one tends to be more scrupulous about strangers and initiating contact.
    Otherwise, the past 8 months hasn't been all that bad. Your 10 years certainly beats it and I'm looking forward to the day I can say I've had enough experiences to write something on the same topic.
    Love the way you write :)

  • Paulina

    This was GREAT.

  • kharlamovaa

    This is great. “
    I was jealous of second generation immigrants and how they completely shed their parents’ accents and spoke so perfectly, as if their faces didn’t belong to their words.”

    It's funny because I'm a first generation immigrant but because I moved here in 2nd grade I have no accent at all, and how I wish I had one. I feel so disconnected with my culture so often. I don't know the movie stars, the literature or the expressions, and sometimes I feel like a traitor – both ways.

  • 3NL

    i bookmark every article of yours that i read

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