“Do Americans like rice?” an earnest Japanese student asked me. As an American and an ex-pat living in Japan, I’m constantly at odds with questions about American culture and tradition, such as questions about food, dress, religion, politics, education, health care, language, tradition, family values, pop culture, rock culture, poop culture, public transportation, large suburban homes and bustling sleepless cities, Lady Gaga, First Lady Obama, taxes, taxi rates, Disneyland, and Disney World. I was hired to serve as a high school English teacher and post facto international ambassador for Japanese students’ culture-related questions.
We Japanese take off our shoes when we enter a building. Do Americans do that?
We Japanese use chopsticks and many small dishes when we eat. How do Americans eat?
We Japanese eat rice with every meal. Do Americans eat rice?
Some of their questions are easy to answer:
Is it true that Americans often take Advil instead of visiting the doctor? Yes.
Is it true that most Americans only use toilet paper and no water to wipe their derriere after they use the toilet? Yes.
Some are slightly tricky:
Do Americans usually call it ‘autumn’ or ‘fall’? I’m from California, where we have spring and summer. When the temperature dips below 60°F, we call it winter--so I guess my answer to your questions is: No.
Most questions are truly impossible:
We Japanese eat cake on Christmas and sweet, sticky rice on New Year’s Day.What do Americans traditionally eat on Christmas and New Year’s Day? Candy canes and, uh, leftover candy canes?
What is your favorite American dish? …California burritos?
Is your nose piercing part of your American culture? Not really… but well, sure, OK.
Are you half-American?
By my black hair, tan skin, round, brown eyes, and 5’0” stature, you might guess that I’m Vietnamese, Hawaiian, maybe part-Mexican, but definitely some kind of Asian. Final answer: full Filipina (by that I mean, both of my parents are from the Philippines… beyond my grandparents generation, “purity” of ethnicity is anyone’s guess). I am a first-generation immigrant. Do Americans like rice? Well, I’m an American, and I have it every day. Do Americans wear their shoes in the house? I’m an American, and I don’t.
I grew up with the “it’s our differences that make us unique” mentality—that nothaving a single aspect of culture to unite the United States is what makes America great. We continue to teach youngsters in elementary school about our lack of one shared, common culture under the unit title, “multiculturalism”; in universities, they’re keen on the term “intersectionality”.
Despite our culture of don’t-you-dare-assume-who-I-am-or-where-I’m-from and I’ll-identify-as-I-see-fit, if there is one past time we can call truly American, it’s making games of guessing others’ ethnicities. She’s gotta have some Black in her; I bet her dad is Black. He’s definitely White --I don’t know what kind of White, just White. Look at that baby—it’s so cute… it must be mixed.
Even in an age when it’s becoming taboo to ask someone, “what are you?”, we know the half-this, half-that racial breakdown of our friends, colleagues, NicoleScherzinger (half-Filipino, a quarter-Hawaiian, and a quarter-Russian), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (half-Black Nova Scotian, half-Samoan), and President Barack Obama (half-Kenyan, half-“mostly English”). Amongst my group of friends, we take it a step further and specify how many generations our family has been in the United States: American-born Chinese, second-generation Mexican, fourth-generation Japanese, one-half-generation Filipino. I asked one of my White coworkers where he was from because I couldn’t place his accent. South Africa. “How many generations has your family been there?” I asked. “…huh? I have no idea.” My question, of course, was yet another product of our American obsession for the name-that-identity game.
Outside of the States, however, I confuse people if I identify as anything but American first. It is surprisingly easy to convince people of my nationality, despite not being a WASP and despite still sometimes being asked by my thoroughly impressed fellow Americans why I speak English fluently. Perhaps my American-ness is made obvious to strangers abroad by the way my tongue curls up on the sides when I pronounce the letter “r” or my round vowels when I pronounce words like “loud” and “sorry” in true West Coast fashion; more likely, my identity is betrayed by something less flattering, like my candidness, loud volume, or daily uniform of jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers.
In fact, my looks have been so non-telling of anything about my Filipino heritage that when I challenged my class of 14-year-old Japanese students to guess where I’m from, to my naïve surprise, they all guessed correctly on their first try. When I asked what I perceived to be the easier question—“Where do you think my parents are from?”—they enthusiastically shouted, “America!” “Canada!” “Australia!” “England!”. They didn’t guess any Asian countries until I pointed them towards that side of the globe.
In our increasingly connected global society, where the color of one’s skin is just finally being understood as an incorrect basis to assume a person’s culture or upbringing, identity labels are now also becoming more complex and less, well, identifying.
To my curious students’ credit, their previous English teachers and my foreign coworkers do little to illustrate the definition or difference between culture, heritage, and ethnicity. We teachers consist of a Chinese-Canadian, a Korean-New Zealander, a British-Trinidadian, an Iranian-Brit, and a quarter-Spanish/quarter-Chinese/half Filipino from Australia. Oh, and a Canadian-New Zealander. What does that even mean?
Gone are the days that country-hyphen-country necessarily meant where my parents are from-hyphen-my nationality.
Gone are the days when the United States carried the title of the lone melting pot of the world. During my recent visit to the Philippines this holiday season, I barely recognized metropolitan Manila as a city of the Philippines: upscale urbanites now consist not only of Filipinos, but also foreign spouses of immigrant Filipinos, their mixed-race families, international businessmen and managers working for call centers, and foreign exchange students studying, believe it or not, English.
I’m not claiming that it’s a new phenomenon for cultures and ethnicities to mix. However, I do believe that questions like “where are your parents from?”, “where were you born?”, and “in your culture, do you___?” reveal less and less about an individual. Where were you born? Japan. (What does that reveal to you?) Where are your parents from? The Philippines. (Does that reveal anything more?) What’s your nationality? American. (How about now?) Where does your accent and slang come from? Probably California, maybe even a little from Hawaii, where I lived for a year; or perhaps from mingling with my English teacher coworkers from English-speaking countries like England, Jamaica, Canada, Australia, Scotland, and Singapore.
I thought that times were a-changing fast for the Generation-Y global pioneers, but it is a still stranger, unstable, and shrinking world for my 2000s-born students trying to make sense of their own culture and that of others. One of my 16-year-old Japanese students maintains an online romantic relationship with a Russian high school girl; they communicate with each other in English.
I’m supposed to teach, or at least be some kind of living example of, foreign culture to my students, but lessons on the subject are moving targets. Perhaps rather than teaching students aspects about particular cultures, we should teach them how to have personal interactions in the global society—that is, not “about” a group of peoples, but rather, how to meet and maintain positive relationships with individuals of different ethnic/national/linguistic/religious backgrounds.