Sunday, August 5, 2012

Foreigner in a Country Called Earth


I get asked this question quite a bit - Where are you from? What nationality/ethnicity are you?
This is one tough question for me to answer, probably because I have moved around so much in my life. I'm used to nice to meet yous and goodbyes, new faces and old. I've done so much moving and changing that I find it a bit confusing to reply when someone asks, "So, what are you?"

If pressed, I suppose I'd call myself American, since the US is the country I've lived in the longest, where I am officially citizen, where I learned how to think and create and move toward finding myself. But I was also born and lived in China for a few years, and now I have lived and worked in Japan for a few years. When asked, I don't feel a particularly strong sense of nationalism, but think of myself simply as a person, a resident of this earth.


I've found that labels can only be misleading and sometimes stereotypical. For example:

1) For my covers of Korean songs or Japanese songs that I post on Youtube, I receive comments that I must be Korean/Japanese, and that my English is so good!

2) In the past, when I taught at Japanese elementary and middle schools as an ALT, the kids would always exclaim, "Whaaaat she's Japanese?! I thought it was supposed to be a foreign teacher!" 
But when I started talking, a hush would fall upon the room, followed by exchanged glances and nervous giggles of surprise.

3) A few years ago, during a studio session with music production professionals, I had one sound engineer comment when I greeted him, "Your Japanese speaking really sounds like it has a Chinese accent!"
...Wow, thanks! Although my native language is English and I can barely string a sentence together in Chinese these days. (I'm sorry, Mom!) 
No idea how I was supposed to react to that one, so I just said, "Oh really!" and laughed awkwardly, and we moved on to work.

(*Don't get me wrong, many people I've met in Japan have been extremely open-minded and embracing of me without caring less about my ethnic background. But those are just a few examples which stood out in my experience and illustrate my point.)


 For those examples I listed above, people have an image of a particular race that they build up from what they hear from friends, parents, the news, personal experiences with individuals from that ethnic background... and the tendency to judge spills over.

I've been so used to the heterogeneous culture and mix of ethnicities that make up Northern California. It's perhaps one of the most diverse places in the world, but I took it for normal, not fully comprehending the fact that not everywhere is like this. But now, I am so glad to have grown my ideas and way of thinking within that culture and level of openness. It helps me keep aware, no matter what different ways of thinking I encounter elsewhere.


Honestly, how sad is it when people are expected to speak a certain language, behave in a certain manner, or feel attached to a particular country based solely on their face, the color of their skin, or their racial origin? 
In this day and age, when countless people of all ethnicities and backgrounds continue to travel, immigrate, work in different countries, study and excel in different languages... how is it that we still attribute archaic stereotypes based on race?
How can we stop doing so?

The answer to that is education.
Not just from school, but becoming aware by oneself, learning to think outside the box and not to judge before understand the true situations and contexts. Learning that things are not always how they appear on the outside. 

Seems so simple, but it's surprising how hard that concept is to ingrain in the mind.


Some people might counter, "You should be proud of your race and cultural background!"
This may sound surprising to some, but I just don't think those concepts can always accurately define an individual.

I love it when I meet people who are open-minded and aren't surprised at the complicated clashes of cultural identities and messily meshed results of having lived in many different places.


 How beautiful would it be if more people were able to see past the confines of race, to see personality instead of skin color, to see achievements instead of facial shape, to see the mind and the heart instead of ethnic stereotypes and backgrounds?

To humankind's credit, I think we're slowly getting there, becoming more open, gaining a greater understanding and acceptance of others. But still, getting there a little too slowly for my taste.