October 31, 2019 | Narrative
an (asian) american abroad
a dispatch from dublin
In America, I never felt very American.
When I became an American citizen at sixteen, questions exploded in my mind like a never-ending show of Fourth of July fireworks: What is an American and what does it mean for me to be one and where am I from and what on earth does it mean to be Asian American?
Oddly enough, the first time I claimed an American identity was in French class. I learned to say je suis américaine two years after my naturalization. It felt all kinds of wrong. French felt foreign in my mouth—the syllables strange, the accent elusive. Americanness itself felt foreign as well: a scratchy, too-small sweater someone was forcing over my head. But what other answer could I give when asked quelle est ta nationalité? My American passport, my parents’ naturalization, made me American.
But here in Dublin for study abroad, having left America, is where I have truly become an American.
I come face-to-face with my identity in the taxi I take into Dublin from the airport, when my amiable driver begins to chat with me about American politics. “Your president,” he says. “You all,” he says. “It’s a shame, how you all aren’t even ready for a female president!” It’s my first day in Ireland, and I am already being identified as part of an American collective I never really thought I belonged to.
Oh, I think, almost startled. I’m an American.
It turns out that I carry this Americanness with me everywhere, like the very breath that lives in my lungs. Simply opening my mouth often broadcasts it. I meet an Australian girl who says, as soon as I introduce myself, “So I take it you’re from the States?” An Irish student tells me that she can hear some “stateside twang” when I talk. Stateside twang? To me, my American accent sounds flat. Boring. I hear myself saying “sorry” as I squeeze past people on the sidewalk, the o drawn out into an ugly ah. Sorry. S-ah-rry. I start to say sorry the way I hear it from others, like s-oh-rry. I start calling America “the States.”
Hi, I’m Naomi, I say over and over again. I’m from the States.
While my accent immediately exposes my Americanness, I suspect that many people don’t expect me to be American before they hear me speak. I don’t look American—which is to say that I’m not white. (Another question: What does an American look like? And another: What do people think an American looks like?)
I tell an elderly Irish man I’m from the States, and he awkwardly asks me what my “background” is. Background? He clarifies, “Your, um…ethnic background.” I still don’t know how I feel about his question—is it funny, or is it discomfiting? Not wanting to betray either reaction, I just reply that I’m Korean American. We end up having a short-lived and stilted conversation about how California has a large Korean American population. (I’ve never been to California.)
On bustling Grafton Street, I’m twice flagged down by Chinese tourists who mistake me for one of them. Surprise colors the face of one woman after I say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m not Chinese,” and, caught off guard, she stammers, “Thank you.” This, at least, is a familiar experience—even in the States, Asians and non-Asians alike frequently assume I am Chinese.
At Han Sung Asian Market across the river, is the cashier surprised by the American debit card I use to pay for my sesame oil and gochujang? What about those working at Tesco and Lidl?
One Sunday, at a church service I walk too far to attend, an elderly woman sits down next to me and asks if this is my first time here. (It is.) Friendly and conversational, Joan asks me where I’m from. I say, “I’m from the States.”
“Oh!” says Joan. Am I imagining the hint of surprise in her voice?
Later, Joan introduces me to another American in the church because of our shared nationality. I’m relieved that I’ve been spared a stuttering conversation with the other Koreans in attendance, whom I overheard fluently conversing in Korean. I’m not confident that my language skills could endure a conversation with a true native speaker. And how could I explain, “Well, I’m Korean, but Korean American,” and at what point would the distinction become necessary? Because surely it is.
If this were America, would I have been introduced to the Korean congregants instead?
In America, the “Asian” part of “Asian American” feels most visible—not just to non-Asians, but to me as well. I frequently wrestle with the question of what it means to be Asian in America, the question of what it means to be an Asian American. Sharing a living space with white Americans, I worry that frying kimchi will leave behind an offensive smell in the communal kitchen. I feel oddly out of place cooking rice on the stove. I tell myself I’m being ridiculous for feeling this way without reason.
Here in Ireland, the “American” in “Asian American” seems to draw more attention. Perhaps it’s because people want to avoid saying anything potentially insensitive, or perhaps it’s because Americanness is foreign and interesting enough on its own. But in any case, I have never felt so squarely American in my life. Once we’re downstairs for tea and coffee at the church, one woman tells me about her sister who married an American, moved to Georgia—my home state—and developed a thick Southern accent. She treats me to a nasally, exaggerated Southern drawl, imitating her sister’s complaints about the lack of free soda refills in Ireland: “But in America…”
For the first time, I find myself holding onto my newfound American identity without struggling violently with or against it. Maybe it’s because America is something familiar in this country where cars drive on the left side of the road and the h sound goes missing from Thursday and thirty. Maybe it’s because leaving has made me realize that when I think of home, I think of America. Maybe it’s because, finally, I want to assert that, despite my own ongoing questions and despite others’ doubts, I, too, belong in America.
I can say it now, much more easily: je suis américaine. After two years of studying French, the language does not seem terribly foreign anymore. Likewise, I’ve become more comfortable with my Americanness, although I would be lying if I said the sweater isn’t sometimes still too small, too scratchy. But I will lay claim to it and wear it nonetheless, so that it stretches to make room for me, so that the knitting softens against my skin.