20 December 2011

American Identity: From the Philippines to Fredonia

American Identity:  From the Philippines to Fredonia
Mikiharu Holst

Long flights are never fun and those flights around 20 hours long are especially bad. I was living in the Philippines before I came to Fredonia and my family had been travelling around the world for a long time. My father and siblings have American citizenship like me, but my mom is a Japanese citizen and has a green card to live in the States. Since we travel a lot on government orders for my father's work, she gets a somewhat free pass with issues of refreshing it and having to deal with some problems with moving in and out of the country. If the government didn’t give some leeway to families that had to travel, that would be terrible.

            Anyway, at the immigration counter in Detroit where they check your passports and what-not, the guy who was manning that desk was telling my mother she couldn’t go on. He said her card was expired and she couldn’t go on. My mother tried to explain that because of her husband’s orders… And he cut her off. He kept saying that it didn’t matter about him and his citizenship, because she wasn’t a citizen and needed to update her card. She knows how this works, I mean she’s been doing this for years, but the jerk wouldn’t listen and was just being rude. It was incredibly frustrating to say the least. We had a flight in about an hour and a half, which is not much time in airports, and this was a hassle we really didn’t need to deal with. Eventually he sent us over to another desk, I can’t remember what it was called, but they dealt with these problems more in-depth so the rest of the people could get through. The new guy understood what the problem was and knew that she didn’t have to jump through hoops to travel in the US. So luckily we managed to go on without much hassle after that. He talked a little bit about maybe refreshing it soon, but that it cost money that would be unnecessary to spend while she didn’t need to. We made our flight and now I’m here in Fredonia attending college. This experience made me really think about what it means to be American.

            Just looking at how the two different immigration workers in the airport treated my mother gave me a sharp contrast in how Americans can act. One was incredibly rude and dismissive of someone who wasn’t American. The other helped as best he could and offered advice on how to best deal with the situation we found ourselves in. Immigration is the first thing that people see when they enter a country and as I’m effectively new to the US, this was my first glimpse at America. It wasn’t a great introduction to American society, but the help of the other worker helped to make it better. In Beyond Citizenship, Peter Spiro talks about American citizenship and the devaluing of American citizenship. This probably applied in my situation with immigration as the first man obviously feels strongly about American citizenship and how my mother didn’t want to become an American citizen. This is because Japan only lets you have one citizenship; you can have dual citizenship if you're born with both, but you have to pick Japan or whichever other country you’re tied to before you turn 22. Her parents, my grandparents, are Japanese and live in Japan so she is not going to give up her citizenship when she can just get a green card to live in the States. Spiro says the value of American citizenship has gone down, and while it may have gone down a bit, I believe that being American is still valuable.

My name is Mikiharu Holst and I’m half American and half Japanese. I’ve lived in many places around the world and have in turn experienced a lot. I was born in the States but I’ve spent more time overseas than I have in the US. In total I’ve only lived in the US for four years. My time in Japan and Israel has been more memorable than the few years I’ve had in the states. Moving around so much has made it that I don’t, or can’t, say “back home” in reference to the States. “Back home” happens to be wherever my family happens to be at the moment. The location of “home” shifts every few years and that’s normal for me. As moving to a new country is a more drastic change than moving to a new house in the neighborhood or to the next state, I’d say that my life has been different than many Americans. This has also lead me to less American interaction overall, as living in other countries has limited it to people in similar circumstances to me. Japan is the place I’ve lived the longest and could possibly be called home, but I don’t think there is any country I can really dub “home.”

While I don’t have a home, I’ve developed as a person throughout my life. I can say what kind of person that I am. I’m a nice guy, not outgoing, attempt to be funny but often fail miserably (sometimes in a way that ends up being amusing), pretty lazy, and a bunch of other descriptors that I could spout. Figuring out what kind of person I am isn’t something that just clicked one day. I’ve learned and relearned what kind of person I am throughout the years. It’s a bit harder to define what I am in regards to national identity, even after my 19 years on this planet.

Race is often used to guess roughly where someone is from. You take that, compare it to their clothes and what they have and you start forming opinions. Even if it’s not conscious, we all stereotype in one way or another and we apply that to how we look at the person. This could lead to a guess to them being from Kenya, China, or England. It’s terribly inefficient though. People from all races can be found all over the world. The US is also pretty diverse so that can throw a wrench into some guesswork. Drawing a conclusion of nationality from race doesn’t work. Matthew Frye Jacobson has a part in Whiteness of a Different Color where he quotes Smith and his students. One student was saying how anyone could tell that he was Greek just by looking at him. The student he asked said she didn’t know that the other student was Greek before he told the class he was. If you stand in front of a stranger and study them for a minute, will you be able to see what nationality they are? No. I can’t look in a mirror and see what my nationality is and I can’t look at someone else and instantly know theirs. So while we are legally born with a nationality, that doesn’t really mean anything. People aren’t born patriotic to a nation. You don’t even know what a nation is yet. Identity has to be found.

            I could just look at my race and then turn to my passports and stop there. If someone asks me what my nationality is I can just whip out my passports. “Look at these and it’ll tell you what I am. Ignore any preconceptions and doubts you may have, reader of my passport; you can now see that I am American and Japanese.” But wait, this doesn’t always work for people. It doesn’t work for me. While I do identify as American and Japanese, it’s not because my passports tell me that. There are people who don’t feel like they’re a part of the country they are officially a part of. Other people feel like they have a certain nationality even when they don’t have it officially. Having that little book is very useful if you want to travel and various other things requiring identification. I get to visit my family after this semester ends because my passport will let me fly over and visit them for winter break. People couldn’t travel around the world and see new places and experience different things without passports, but they don’t make your identity.

            Still, passports can help you figure out your identity. Typically this would happen by letting you travel and the experience would help you out. I’ve travelled all over the world because of it and I’ve dealt with many kinds of people. Europe, the Middle East, Japan, and the Philippines all act differently. Being in these places gave me experience with the rest of the world and how it acts. Many things are different overseas and many things can end up similar. Obvious things like language matter little and a lot. People are people regardless of what language they speak, but not speaking the same language can cause barriers to appear. In the Philippines they speak English but Tagalog is mixed in liberally to make a unique blend of Tagalog and English. It can vary depending on who you speak to and where you are in how much languages are mixed or used. This fusion of two languages is vastly different than in the US where speaking multiple languages is promoted, and bashed, at the same time.

Language also influenced my views on my identity, albeit indirectly. I can only speak English, even though I learned Spanish as a young child and Japanese in school while I lived in Japan. I forgot basically all the Spanish I knew within a couple weeks of leaving Mexico. Japanese went away slower, but I’d also not learned it as well as I had Spanish as a young child. I probably forgot the bulk of my Japanese knowledge more slowly than I did Spanish because we use a small amount of Japanese around the house; we occasionally talked with our grandparents on the phone(who only speak Japanese) and watched anime. I know a few words and how to count but I can’t really communicate with anyone in Japanese beyond rudimentary statements. While I still love my Japanese side, my inability to understand and speak Japanese effectively locks me out of truly identifying as Japanese. I like to say I’m half Japanese and its definitely a part of me, but my American side is more prominent because of this.

Cultures of other nations can give a stark contrast, or eerie similarity, to the one you’re used to. While I didn’t really live in America long enough to really grasp American society, I’ve lived around Americans overseas and have been in American International Schools. I think one of my most interesting experiences with culture was my trip to Qatar. Qatar was only going to take a few days as I was only there for an MUN (Model United Nations) conference. I flew in from Israel, so we had to do a somewhat roundabout flight to avoid problems with that. Right away my trip to Qatar made me think about what being an American meant. Just flying from Israel is enough to make it so the flight has to be in a somewhat roundabout way that avoids nations that aren’t really on friendly terms with Israel. While not everyone loves America, we don’t have to deal with as many people outright hating our guts. Landing then leads to customs and immigrations where having an Israeli passport lead to more scrutiny. A couple people were pulled aside for a more thorough check, being hassled for things on their passport, although overall the treatment was less severe than the year before. This is the main part where I saw what being Israeli meant to other people and I compared it to my treatment then and now. After the airport, most of my experiences and comparisons that I draw from Qatar stems from comparing the culture there to American culture. In a way it was very similar, but again very different. Many women wore traditional garb yet fashion stores could be found in malls. The mall I went to is an incredible mall that is fancy. It had a canal that ran through much of the mall, complete with gondolas. It had an ice rink, IMAX 3D, and of course McDonalds. A mall as massive and filled as this is something that many people consider “American” with consumerism and burgers, also had strong Islamic ties. It was a unique experience to me and was very interesting to say the least. The US has, relative to some countries in the Middle East, pretty strong ties to Qatar so it might not be too much of a surprise to see “American” things, but the contrast was still fascinating.

            When I think of my identity in the sense of being American, I look at my life experiences and who I am to try and determine that. I’ve only lived in the US for four years in total and this freshman year in college will be my fifth. I’ve lived in Bolivia, Mexico, Japan, Israel, and the Philippines. I’ve also visited Qatar, Rome, Vienna, Paris, and other airports around the world. Seeing the world is a rare opportunity and I grew up with it. I’ve dealt with people in other nations having to deal with me, an American, which puts some more perspective onto my life. When I compare how the people are in most of these nations to how many Americans I’ve met and know, I start to think that I am pretty American. While it’s not a universal template, many Americans are pretty nice and go out of their way to help a stranger. At least, this is an aspect of Americans that I think I have. And that is how it ended up becoming for me. Travel forces perspective onto you as you see the rest of the world. Japan is a good place for this to happen. At least for me. The American environment through the housing and schools gave me a more grounded and familiar place to live. But I’d step outside and be in a whole new world and could see the differences right away. Home wasn’t a copy of American life, but it had many aspects and the bases were pretty similar. I could just look at the movie theaters and see differences between Japan and America. Simple things like movie seats being something you just picked in the American theaters while you were assigned them in Japanese ones. I could find food that is usually only readily available in America and was “rare” in Japan. Caprisun was surprisingly popular among my friends and I’d trade with them during lunches. The, in a way, easy access to America through the bases enabled me to stay grounded and explore the country easily.

            Sum up everything that’s happened to me during my life and all the things I’ve done and experienced and you build up my identity. I view myself as an American, with Japanese parts, a nice guy, atheist, person who’s seen much of the world, a gamer, and human. My life has seen a host of experiences in my travels, mistakes, and adventures. If I had to I might be able to narrow down how I exactly define what my identity is, but I feel like my identity is malleable and can easily get modified. Some of the basics stay the same, which would be the things I listed before this, but overall my identity is not something I can really define yet. But the things I listed at the start of this paragraph are some of the most important parts of my identity. Family influenced me but they’re not my identity. Being American is an important part of me as I love my country. My Japanese side as well is something that I appreciate a lot and enjoy. Experience and having been in a good amount of the world has a lot of sway for me. I’m human with all my mistakes and achievements. My gamer part isn’t just saying that playing games is an important part of who I am but it is also how I can describe the kind of things I like among other things. But simply being a nice guy is the most important thing to me. I can be a dick sometimes and am not always cheerful or nice, but I try. Being nice is something I want to be, so I try and be it.

             America is a great country and I believe it’s the best in the world, even with all of our faults and imperfections. We try to be the best, not just in raw power, but in how we act and view the world. Some politicians and citizens might not follow that same train of thought, but the country as a whole tries. Aspiring to be what America stands for is what I believe is a core feature of what being American really is. You have to really want to be and try to be American. That doesn’t mean you have to attend rallies or do other crazy things to prove it. Simply wanting and trying to follow some of the ideals of the American dream or the principles that we stand for is enough in my book. Taking it too far still makes you an American, just a bad or stupid person. The ideals that America stands for probably differ person to person, but I think some of my thoughts on it might ring true for others. Tolerance and acceptance towards others of all kinds is something that I think America stands for. There of course is still racism and hatred towards certain groups in the US, but it is not supported. As America was built to greatness by a large assortment of people and groups, none can claim to be the real American way. The best and brightest Americans have roots from all over the world.  So with that in mind, I like to think America is the melting pot, as its been called, and that we are open to all and accepting of others.

            Beyond simply accepting others for their differences and looking at who they are as a person, I think Americans’ acting when needed is another important attribute. America acts when we think we’re needed to help out. While we have had misguided acts and aren’t always doing things for the right reasons, we still act where others don’t. If there is a problem we go out and try and fix it. This is something that should apply to smaller things than the acting of the country as a whole. I would hope that I would be able to follow my own directions if it ever came up for me to try and help stop a robber or other criminal. It’s a terrifying notion, but if people can’t even go out of their way to help someone who is literally right there in front of them, then we have no right to call ourselves a true American. Americans have pulled together in times of crisis, but there are also people who loot in those times and ignore crimes in front of them. Putting aside the examples of those who don’t follow the law or turn a blind eye to those who do, it is still an ideal that I think many people would like to follow. It’s difficult to judge how people would work with it, but it something that I could hope that more Americans would try and do.

            In addition to stepping up when it’s called for and being open and accepting to others, I think to be American you have to also try and achieve the American Dream. It’s something that has been a part of America for a long time. It comes in different phrases and can be described differently, symbolizing many American values and something we can aspire to no matter our social class. It isn’t an absolute idea and it isn’t perfect, but it extols great ideals and can encourage people to rise high above what they normally would think possible. Dreaming for greatness isn’t what is required, but getting to happiness via hard work or through your own means. Promoting that you can achieve what you want in life and the freedom of each person to do so. Pushing for individual freedoms is something that America has been doing for a while and the American Dream promotes freedom to succeed.

            Being American is important to many and it is important to me. It doesn’t rule my life, but I’d like to hold onto it if I can. When I look at the rest of my life and look it over it helps me reaffirm my American side, while I still embrace my Japanese side. I’ve gone from seeing American-like things overseas to being in America again. Returning to the States for college and reading non-fictional and fictional stories on what being an American means to people and what it means to be American, I’ve supplemented my experiences with these points of views and ideas. While I think that overall my ideas of what it means to be American hasn’t really changed too much over the course of the semester in American Identities, I’ve gotten more perspectives and could develop it some more. Being American is an important part of my identity, but to really reach that point I had to experience other things to figure out what being American means.

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