I avoided it a lot. I read NPR stories about it. I liked my friend’s tweet about it. But whenever the video appeared of President Trump’s rally chanting, “send her back!”, I leapt off my chair and crawled under the desk until it was over.

I’m not an immigrant. Nor am I a child of immigrants. And I am white.

But the send-her-back mentality feels like a cut to my abdomen for a larger reason. Vox cofounder and senior correspondent Matthew Yglesias hits the nail on the head in reflecting on Trump’s tweet—the one that spurred the chanting:

Trump sees nonwhite Americans as not genuinely American…as possessing a kind of inherent foreignness regardless of where they were born and a second-class claim on citizenship.*

The idea that nonwhite = non-American is more pervasive and deeply ingrained than I thought. Many of my friends who don’t ‘look’ completely white have experienced this. They are “the Chinese guy” or “the Indian girl.” They are asked where they are really from.

For me, I have a person in my life who consistently calls me half-American. Never mind that my mother was born and raised in America and that her parents are naturalized citizens. No, it’s my dad’s side that makes me American. Because he’s white.

But confession: I contribute to this sense of otherness.

I emphasize my Asianness in my writing and in my conversations with friends.

If I don’t want people to see me as sub- or part- or half- American, then why talk about my Koreanness?

Why blog about meeting my Korean relatives in Seoul?

Why gush to my friends about this authentic Korean restaurant I found?

Why join a group chat with my friends called Asians Unite and debate over the best Pocky flavor? (It’s strawberry, by the way.)

Surely those things will make me seem not that American.

But as I’ve come to realize, none of that actually makes me less American.

Because American is a malleable identity.

Juliet Lapidos, senior editor of The Atlantic, writes:

This is a country where immigrants can come and decide precisely how much they want to be American, and how much they’d like to retain of the “places from which they came.”…This is a country where immigrants can come and decide what it is to be American, for themselves…The United States offers immigrants the freedom of self-definition.**

The assumption that ‘to be not completely white is to be not completely American’ negates a wealth of experiences that make America America.

On a typical day, I can gorge on barbacoa tacos, see a Mandarin movie in theaters, and meet my friend for cream tea. I can sample gochujang-basted chicken wings at a fusion joint, or sample soul food at my friend’s house. I can hear my coworkers banter in Spanish, and then go to the coffeeshop and overhear a conversation in Slovakian.

And ALL those experiences would be characteristic of the American life.

They may be different to your experiences. And that’s okay.

But they’re still American.


Photo credit: Susan Hong-Sammons

*Matthew Yglesias. The controversy over whether the media should call Trump’s racist tweets “racist,” explained. Vox, July 18th, 2019.

**Juliet Lapidos. The Day I Learned I Was American. The Atlantic, July 23rd, 2019.

2 thoughts on “What “American” Means to Me

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