Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The American Abroad

My favorite color is the navy blue of the American passport.
One of the most beautiful sights to see is the fifty white stars flying in the wind. Fireworks on the Fourth of July never fail to stun me, and the bald eagle is without a doubt the most majestic creature ever to grace the American blue skies.
But I also love the other side of the world. I have a second home ten thousand miles away, that I miss everyday. The Malaysian flag makes me feel patriotic. I have a soft spot for Hindu festivals, and strains of Negaraku conjure up deep feelings of nostalgia.
In the ancient days of cartography, when quills and parchment assumed the role of today’s GPS devices, the world was largely unexplored. Ocean borders stretched on for full pages, the ends of the page serving as the end of the earth. Flat, vast, and largely unexplored, the ancient mapmakers would fill these empty spaces with drawings of dragons and looming beasts. The unknown was more fearful than the known, in the blank areas of the maps, people would write in “There be dragons.”
But where be dragons today? Are there even dragons anymore? Perhaps there are dragons in the deep Amazonian rainforest or the barren tundra of Siberia; the unknown still scares us as a species. But any dragons that once existed have long since been tamed, conquered, divided and labelled on a map. The world is ever changing: shrinking, condensing, becoming less about borders and more about the connections between them. Things that used to be reserved for wealthy diplomats or missionaries are becoming available for the common people. Leaving the country is as simple as a 2 hour flight or ten day cruise to sparkling beaches in once-exotic locales. Tourism rates are rising-- even in less travelled lands in Asia and Africa. But besides the tourists, who tote around their fanny packs and bulky cameras, and hang on to their language books for dear life, people are moving abroad to work or live.
And when these people go abroad, they find themselves not fitting in. Whether the differences are pronounced-- pale skin and red hair in a sea of dark ponytails and almond shaped dark eyes-- or the differences are more subtle, going abroad isolates you and can rip you of your identity. For Americans, people who call a melting pot their home, it is even more challenging.
I am an American paradox: an American born, Malaysian grown, Irish and Russian and Scottish and Hungarian descended walking contradiction. My passport says one thing, but my heart says another. It’s a problem that more and more people are facing: how do we identify ourselves? The Choose Your Own Ethnicity Boxes on standardized tests are confusing, forcing labels to be put on something that is never black or white (or Asian Pacific Islander or Native American or Hispanic). As complex as the definition of “American” is in America, it gains a whole new level of complexity when sent overseas.
The ideas that foreigners have about The United States are things that probably seem pretty funny here. It is amazing how quickly they lose their lighthearted humor when one realizes how a crazy stereotype is what someone actually believes is true. The media is often the only “reliable” source of information that people in other countries have about The US. But of course, the media only shows one side. Newspapers and magazines are quick to print startling headlines: “26 Elementary School Children Killed in Shooting,” “Military Veteran’s Funeral Picketed by Christian Hate Group,” “American Government Official Caught Sending Nude Photos.” These headlines are being consumed and swallowed by people overseas. It is easy to see how America as a country can become a monster in other people’s eyes: a violence ridden, corrupt, obese and backwards country pretending to be freer than free.
Besides the more serious beliefs about the US, there are the more absurd. People in some places of the world fully expect Americans to be obese and Caucasian, stuffing their faces with McDonald’s and pounding down Wendy’s Frosty’s every day. And at the same time, they expect everyone to look like Taylor Swift and talk like Sarah Palin. Movies, books, and TV shows have left people with an unrealistic and impossible definition of what an American is.
I was eating breakfast at a hotel in Asia one time with some American exchange students fresh off the plane from LAX. A very sweet Iranian lady came up to our table and started conversation, asking the usual questions: how long are you here for, what brings you to Malaysia, and where are you from. Beaming, we answered, The United States of America. She burst out laughing, then appeared a bit puzzled when our faces showed we didn’t see what was so funny. “You,” she said placing her hand on my African-American friends shoulder, “are from Africa!” “And you,” turning to my friend who was adopted from China but had lived in America her whole life, “are Chinese!” “And you two,” gesturing to my Mexican-American friend and my very tan Italian-American friend, “Are from South America!” Finally she turned to me and patted my head, “This girl is the only real American here!” My very white cheeks flushed as she brushed my light colored hair out of my face and walked away. I apologized profusely for the incident, although I’m not sure if it was even my fault. Here’s the thing about being an American overseas: the very things which once defined you have the potential to rip you apart.
People are not shy to ask you questions if you don’t fit their preconceived idea of what an American should be. “Why aren’t you fat, why aren’t you blonde, why doesn’t your butt look like Kim Kardashians, why don’t you sing on tables the way they do in High School Musical?” And for those, there is no good answer. Trying to explain the incredibly diverse land that we originate from is nearly impossible. When the foreign country you’re in is the size of Michigan state, how can you explain the vast nation that stretches from sea to shining sea? America is a country founded on differences. It contains deserts and glaciers, Native Americans and Mormons. It is a struggle to explain this to someone who hasn’t visited The United States, hasn’t attended a Memorial Day barbecue or seen a hundred caps thrown into the air at a high school graduation ceremony.
The idea of being an expatriate is confusing to many. Americans wonder why people would leave the states and people overseas wonder why people would go to their country. Even the word itself is scary, suggesting a complete cut off from a country that once was home. Whether it be a matter of wanderlust or work, Americans overseas are the best representation of this country that can be offered. They offer a genuine American perspective, one unmuddled by reporters or headlines, one that is as unique as the person sharing it. Every time an expat tells their story: who they are, what their family is like, a memory from school days, they are saying more about The United States than any movie ever could. Because when you arrive in that new country, step off the plane, and hand your navy blue passport to the immigration officer, you become a window into what may be considered the greatest country in the world. For people that have never interacted with an American before, you become America. And being America is one of the most difficult, but rewarding experiences in this world.
Being America is a hundred questions, from a hundred different people, every day. It’s answering questions about everything from math class to make-up, high school to hot guys. It’s laughing at the ridiculous, blushing at the awkward, and struggling to find answers to the tough ones. The questions you never thought about, questions that make you question yourself or your country, questions that you have to say “I really don’t know” to.  It’s trying to put things gracefully and diplomatically, acknowledging someone’s points while still being honest and real.
Being America means dealing with the stereotypes I talked about before. It’s laughing at the thought of eating only hamburgers, laughing at the thought of everyone in your high school having a boyfriend, and laughing at your friend’s expressions when you tell them you’re laughing because these things are so farfetched. It’s imagining a New York City where you meet a celebrity when you step out to get your morning paper. It’s people expecting you to act like someone from Mean Girls, or Gossip Girl, or High School Musical. It’s realizing that in a weird way, some of the stereotypes are true, even though no school you’ve heard of lets the students sing and dance on the lunch tables.
Being America is dealing with the really difficult situations as well: situations that leave you sobbing because you don’t even know what to say or do. It’s explaining the fact that even though there are Americans who hate Muslims, or hate Christians, or hate Jews, for the most part we’re a pretty accepting nation.  It’s watching your flags burn on TV, stars and stripes overtaken by flames from people that point blame at the collective rather than the individuals. It’s hard to swallow, and even harder to talk about. It’s defending your country, but it’s also acknowledging its shortcomings. Becoming America means being the voice for your country when everyone is against it.
Though there are days when you feel like everyone hates you because of your nationality, or days when you feel like you can’t even explain what being an American is like, being American is something that doesn’t leave you. The pages of your passport may fill up with visas and stamps, but the golden eagle on the front cover will serve as a reminder of where you came from. Each day that you pledged allegiance to the flag in elementary school, each time you took off your hat while singing the National anthem, each time you said Murica? That stuff doesn’t go away. The most beautiful part of exploring dragon-inhabited lands is coming home afterwards, and knowing there’s a place where you can call home. Being an American abroad is taxing, exhausting, humorous, and crazy. It’s a red, white and American passport navy blue adventure every day.


  1. *shivers* that was gorgeous!

  2. Dear Hannah, i'm a malaysian & just figure your blog today and go crazy reading half you articles! it's so interesting the way you describe my Malaysian ordinary things..

    But looks like your dont write that much lately? Please share your life back there in NY, i believe your friends here still want to hear a lot from you.. terima kasih for staying in malaysia..

  3. Dear Hannah, would you keep on writing? I am from Malaysia too, but your perspective of my country is just wonderful.

    come visit my blog

  4. Hashtag AMURICA.
    Very beautifully written han as always! Fourth of July brings out way to many emotional feelings to handle about the world.

    Love, from your adopted chinese friend who really is American-if were being honest probably too American. Wait, there is no such thing.

  5. Dear Hannah...
    Salam sejahtera to you..
    I came across your blog while "google-ing" " student + Terengganu"., and attracted me to AFS experience.
    Your most recent entry reminisces me back to when I was a college student in U of Mo -Columbia.
    Although mine is the reverse of yours, a Malaysian teenager growing within the American culture,
    I can relate to your stories and perspectives.., nevertheless.
    There is a lot more I 'd like to share..
    hope we can be friends


  6. very interesting
    yeah whatever..

  7. Hi Hannah, you have not written for quite some time. I miss your ramblings.
    Terima kasih.

  8. hai hannah please take new pic. i want see u about u,2014,,u is now adult.

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