The pull-down map on the wall squeals as one of the kids yanks it down.
“That’s my country!” she says, stabbing a finger right on top of the Philippines. “Where’s yours?”
My friend points easily at China. “I lived there until I was ten.”
I hesitate, partly because I can’t make decisions anyways, and partly because I have no idea where to point. It’s true that I am Chinese and Japanese, but I’ve never really been comfortable saying that I definitively identify as either one. And trying to say that either China or Japan is “my country” is even worse.
After a couple of seconds I decide that I’m American, darn it all, and so I tap the big orange United States of America.
The kid shakes her head. “No, I meant which country is yours!”
I quickly tap both Japan and China, because it’s easier than explaining to a ten year old that I don’t really identify with any country that isn’t America and that I’ve lived here for my entire life and that I use chopsticks less skillfully than my aunt’s white ex-boyfriend and that I couldn’t speak Chinese if my life literally depended on it. And honestly, non-explanation is usually what I do. I would feel so pretentious if someone asked me something innocuous like, “Are you Japanese?” and I answered with a drawn-out spiel about how I don’t actually identify as Asian, even though I technically am.
“Where are you from?” is (occasionally) a big deal in America. At one point in my life it was a really big deal to me that I wasn’t sure how to answer. Did being born here and being good at English and watching cartoons make me an American? Did taking Japanese classes or eating dim sum or folding origami make me Asian?
Who knows; who cares?
(Just kidding, I didn’t actually say that. I wanted to be cool enough to answer that nonchalantly, but that is definitely not how I actually answered. I wanted to be able to stand firmly on one side of the line that I imagined divided Asian me and American me; I can still see it, dark and Sharpie-thick, splitting me into little pieces.)
In all of the books I read in middle and elementary school about Asian-American kids trying to come to terms with being the product of two cultures, the kid would usually decide one of two things: either that it’s possible to straddle the line between Asian and American because duh, people are called Asian-Americans for a reason; or that being Asian and doing Asian things is important while still being an American because (insert reason here, typically family or a personal value of culture and diversity). Actually, those are kind of the same thing. These kids all magically figured out how to balance being Asian and being American, without losing any sense of self–their sense of self was actually probably even stronger because they weren’t wasting a ton of time trying to pick between Asian and American. And for the longest time, I wanted to figure out how to be one of those kids, because I hate making decisions.
I wasn’t sure if I was too American to be Asian, or too Asian to be American, but now I joke all the time about how white I am, and I think that that was my solution–to throw out as many of the stereotypically Asian things about me as I possibly could. I point at America instead of Asia; I fold paper airplanes instead of cranes. It’s not a bad thing, or at least I don’t think so–I picked a side of the Sharpie line in my brain. Maybe in a few years I’ll pick another side, or maybe I’ll figure out how to straddle the line, but for now, this is me. It’s okay not to know, because I’m never going to totally nail down my identity. It’s constantly changing, whether I want it to or not. For now, though, I choose America; and that, more than anything else, makes me an American.