An American Nowhere

Dealing with discrimination from inside and outside my communities.

Five raspberries—four red, one black.

By Karen Yin • October 19, 2016


My mother and I had never gone on a trip by ourselves, so when she asked me to be her travel companion, I said yes. It didn’t matter where. The point was to enjoy quantity time together, the kind of just-having-you-there comfort that quality time cannot approach. That’s what led to my wistful week in New England.

My mom registered us with a Mandarin-speaking tour group, which meant that I would be nodding a lot while plumbing my memory for approximate words. Depending on who you ask, my Mandarin is somewhere between Really Good and Let’s Use English Instead, but I have zero insecurities about it. I had visited China for the first time over a decade ago, and the tour guide (my mom loves tours) promised me that nobody in this part of China would notice my unfortunate Mandarin skills, because everybody is from somewhere else. So, as expected, on this New England tour, Mandarin was just one of the Chinese dialects flying about, and Chinese was one of several languages. It was code-switching heaven.

While chatting with somebody on the tour around my age, I politely refused to answer one of her questions about my mother, saying that if she wanted to know, she would need to ask my mother herself, because I don’t answer questions about other people for them. This exchange was in English. She expressed surprise and said that I was Americanized, because she wouldn’t have thought twice about answering. I asked, “How can I be ‘Americanized’ if I was born here? I was born American.” To which she responded, “Yes, you’re right. I meant that if you were CBC, you would’ve answered me.”

“How can I be ‘Americanized’ if I was born here?”

I’ll get to CBC in a second. If I were to create a pie chart of the ethnic breakdown of the people who’ve told me that I wasn’t an American, wasn’t American enough, or was Americanized, Chinese Americans would be the largest slice. Even those who’ve spent most or all of their lives in the U.S. have unintentionally bought the lie that the label American belongs to White Americans only.

Here’s a typical conversation with a new Chinese American acquaintance:

Them: “So where are you from?”
Me: “Rowland Heights.”
Them: “No, where are you from originally?”
Me: “New York.”
Them: “But what’s your nationality?”
Me: “American.”
Them: “I mean, what’s your blood?”
Me: “B negative.”

I was so over these questions, as you can tell. If you want to know what my ethnicity is, say it. Use that word. Otherwise, I’m going to make it awkward for you. Being the same ethnicity as I am doesn’t entitle you to be racist.

Being the same ethnicity as I am doesn’t entitle you to be racist.

During that trip to China, a local asked if I was Chinese. When I said that I was American, my mother intervened. “She’s not American. She’s ABC.” ABC means American-born Chinese, as opposed to CBC, Chinese-born Chinese. In both cases, as far as Chinese people are concerned, Chineseness overrides nationality. Again, the message—this time coming from Chinese-born Chinese (my mother included)—is that I’m not an American.

Which brings me back to the New England trip. Do I look scary? I ask because so many (White) people staggered backward upon noticing me or eyed me with loathing. The nicer ones were kind enough to speak loudly, with exaggerated expressions, to aid my paltry grasp of English. An entire coffeehouse full of people stared openly until I stared back. I admit that I’m not used to this level of racial disdain anymore. In Los Angeles, where I live, the othering has gotten more sophisticated.

When it’s no longer necessary to inform people that I’m not a foreigner in my own country, I will replace American with person.

Such occurrences are regular enough, though, to have influenced the way I currently identify. I used to say I was Chinese American (without the racist hyphen), but now I say I’m an American of Chinese descent, which puts the emphasis on American. When it’s no longer necessary to inform people that I’m not a foreigner in my own country, I will replace American with person. In case we don’t read the same news, let me catch you up: This shit is still happening, this shit is still happening, and this shit is still happening. It’s exhausting, being told by people inside and outside my communities that I am an American nowhere. But a key part of conscious language is choosing to speak up, which I’ll continue to do until I feel like I belong.

Karen has long wavy hair and is smiling into the camera. She's wearing a gray T-shirt and an aquamarine pendant.Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.

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