COLUMBIA, MO. — I am an American. AMERICAN. I've spent a large portion of my life trying to convince people of this, so I'll say it again: I am an American. A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N.
Yes, I'll admit my parents are Korean immigrants, but I was born--and made--in the U.S.A.
Everyone assumes Americans come in only two flavors, chocolate and vanilla. Even if you arrived from Tanzania or Iceland two hours ago, you get the benefit of the doubt.
But if you're of a different variety--vaguely Asian or slightly Latin American--people automatically label you "fresh off the boat," even if your family helped welcome the Mayflower.
Even the supposedly sensitive people act as if you were less than a real American, or at least less than a real person.
For one thing, I've noticed that certain people bow when they're introduced to me. One professor who did this also swore I had an "unusual" accent, though he's the one who "warshes" dishes and "wrastles" hogs and whose vowels are as flat as the Kansas prairie.
At the same time, I've had people compliment me on my English.
Shucks, it's only my native language.
Other folks wonder how long I've been in the States, and some folks ask outright if I speak English. The considerate ones speak loudly and clearly, just in case. When this happens, the temptation is terrible to rattle off something unintelligible--but preferably obscene--in pidgin French or ancient Greek. (I can recite the first 10 lines of the Iliad in perfect dactylic hexameter.)
So far, I haven't had the guts.
People also act very disappointed if I don't live up to stereotype. My last skirmish with this kind of idiocy happened only last week during, strangely enough, a blood drive.
After asking the usual questions about malaria and yellow jaundice, the nurse (named Cookie) asked if I was good in math. I said no, and she said, "Really? Too bad. You're supposed to be."
I wanted to hit her, but Cookie was holding a large needle. Another attitude that seems especially prevalent is the mail-order-bride mentality. Occasionally when I'm with my boyfriend--who is as Anglo as you can get--total strangers walk up and ask him where I'm from, if I speak English, blah-blah-blah.
The next time someone does that, I'm going to have him reply, "Oh yes. Glad you asked. Bought her from a catalogue, for $4.99. Postage and handling extra, of course, but quite a bargain, nonetheless."
The same mentality is responsible for a certain class of male that seems to think Asian women are easy to please, utterly subservient and desperately clamoring for Anglo husbands.
Two such individuals have crossed my path in the past year alone. One of them was a fellow whose last name coincides with that of a well-known Walt Disney character.
During lunch in the dorm cafeteria, he sauntered over and said (this is true), "Hello. Me see you here very long time. Me think you very pretty."
He then said, "I don't like American girls. I only like Asian women." So solly to disappoint you, Romeo.
The second fellow was a middle-aged convenience-store clerk from Springfield, Mo., whose pick-up line was 20 Questions. "Are you Chinese?" No. "Are you Taiwanese?" No. "Are you Mongolian, Cambodian, Laotian, Filipino, Japanese, Hawaiian?" No, no, no, no, NO.
Second-class treatment like this has made a lot of American-born Asians and Latinos ashamed of their heritage in a way that other Americans aren't. You'll probably never catch one of us with a button reading, "Kiss me. I'm Korean."
In fact, there's a heavy burden on us to deny all ethnicity and to prove we're just like everyone else, i.e., real Americans. The results are sometimes pathetic.
One guy on campus wears only the hippest clothes, talks only the coolest slang and is basically a parody of the Typical American College Student.
I used to pretend my middle name was "Susan" instead of "Suhn," an unwieldy little Korean syllable that caused me much grief during grade-school roll-calls.
My little brother takes pride in the fact that he can't pronounce his Korean name at all. Years of teasing have squelched any sort of pride, and he refuses to hang around with Asians. Culturally, the boy is mush--a messy mix of MTV and McDonald's.
So why is it that Europeans can indulge in ethnic eccentricities such as corned beef and green beer without losing their identities as Americans? Why is it that local Oktoberfest turns everyone else into de facto Germans, but Asian festivals attract nothing but condescending gawkers?
Tell me, where are YOU from?