Where Are We Really From?

7 Apr

Last semester I tutored/peer assisted with a new grad student to UMass. The student, Yiming Li, had just arrived from China and didn’t have very strong conversational English skills. Since I was already thinking about teaching English abroad, I thought this would be a great experience. The experience itself was interesting, if not informative. I don’t know if I really helped Yiming improve his English skills, but I did try to at least help him understand American culture.

Sometimes I would try to teach him about baseball or football. One time we went for a hike on Mt. Tom (even though we got lost and it took us a few hours to get out), and talked about life in China, both currently and during the Cultural Revolution. It was very interesting to hear all of the stories from someone who is actually from China, rather than just reading about it in an article or history book. We even had dinners where I taught him how to make pasta and he made me traditional Chinese food. It was delicious, by the way.

And it was during these talks that we got to the topic of nationality and heritage. At one point or another I mentioned that I had a few Chinese friends with familial roots to Shanghai or Beijing. And when I told him this he seemed confused.

“Well, they’re not Chinese. They’re American,” he told me.

At first I thought it was something lost in translation, but after a few minutes I started to understand what Yiming was saying. To Americans, everything depends on where you can trace your lineage to. For centuries, immigrants have been moving towards neighborhoods with other people of their own descent. Irish, Italian, Chinese, Jewish, German, and any other group has formed their own community in almost every city.

We’ve been raised and taught in our educational system that American is a “melting pot” of cultures, languages, and ideas. But really, it’s more of a “tossed salad.” There’s lettuce, tomatoes, croutons, and other things in the mix. They don’t necessarily become one solid thing, but together, they create a nice blend and delicious meal. By the way, don’t give me credit on that metaphor. I’m blanking on who said it a couple of weeks ago, but I thought it was really nice and they gave permission to spread it.

Anyway, for Americans, we rarely see ourselves as true Americans, though we often try to think that way. In reality, we see an Irish guy, a Chinese girl, or a Polish Jew. Maybe it’s just inherent in humans to try to bond with the common traits and associations they already understand, so that when a person with the last name O’Leary meets another person named Flannigan, they feel some connection. Keep in mind that those two people might have never set an eye on the Emerald Isle.

So where are we really from? Are you ever really from anywhere? If you can just pick up and leave so easily today, what truly ties you to the land? The culture, the food, or the heritage itself? Maybe it’s just the idea of a place you once belonged to. But that would mean that we’re all just guests here in America, waiting to go home once we’ve made enough money to support the entire family. Horatio Alger style.

Back to Yiming. I was telling him about my Chinese friends, and he was quite confused. To him, once you left China, you were no longer Chinese. Those people were now American, and though their families were from China, they spoke Chinese, ate Chinese food, and enjoyed the Chinese new year, they were still Americans. He even told me about a friend of his who had moved to America from China. The man moved in his early 20s. He’d been living in America for only a few years, but Yiming said he was no longer Chinese, that he was American.

Maybe it’s just the way the Chinese culture looks at immigration. I can’t say from experience, and I’d be interested to find out more about it. In any case, I think of this now, as I prepare to move to Ecuador next year. I’m still an American, sure, according to my passport, anyway. But I’m still going to tell people that my mom is from Argentina, that I’m Jewish, and that I love traveling abroad and living internationally. How can I truly be an American if I love leaving the country that I love?

I always look at it as a necessary tool to better appreciate where I’m from and what I have. Every time I come back I am more grateful for the things I have and can take for granted. But that aside, I wonder if those of us who travel, work, and live abroad truly have a home. Maybe the road is home. Maybe the idea of home is just that–an idea. Something intangible that we place material things to so that we may see the transparent object. Maybe, just maybe, home is whatever you make of it. Forget the house with the white picket fence. Forget the cottage by the sea. Forget the bed you grew up in. It could just be inside of you. And that can be taken anywhere you go, for as long as you choose to go.

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