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11/11/2012

No, Really, I'm American.

Before I begin, I’d like to clarify that I’m greatly enjoying my time in China, and that the part of my experience I’m going to describe is just that: a part of a much larger and more significant experience.

When I came to China, I had expected to be noticed as a foreigner, an outsider, and an American. I’d heard rumors and firsthand experiences of how Americans were treated in China, ranging from “the celebrity treatment” of photos and autographs from native Chinese around every corner to a shutting-out sort of feeling accompanied by the sentiment of “you’re American...why are you here?” What I had prepared myself for, though, was completely unlike what I received. I will have been in China one month tomorrow, and I have still yet to be asked if I am (or assumed to be) American. I’ve been asked if I’m Russian, Italian, and (in a case of which we still haven’t made sense) Japanese. I’ve been asked how many months or years I’ve been here (though only before I start to speak in my broken Mandarin), and people occasionally can’t place me at all and go for the nice, safe, general “ 你是从哪一个国家来的?" (Which country are you from?) but never whether I'm American. Several people I've directly told that I was American have refused to believe me, one of them even beginning to laugh and telling me that he met another Russian once, too, and I share her sense of humor.

At first, I felt almost cheated by this...part of the reason Americans go abroad is to find out more about the experience of being an American abroad, and I was watching my friends have that experience, which I felt I was being denied. Eventually, almost three and a half weeks in, it hit me. The experience of being an American studying abroad isn’t just the experience of being recognized as an American abroad. The experience of being an American in China also includes my experience, of total and alienating expatriation, whereby a nationality is ascribed to you according to the media stereotype you most closely reflect and that’s how you’re expected to act and who you’re expected to be. My American (and one French) classmates, and even a friend from Sweden, will always be asked if they’re American more often than I will, but the sudden loss of the apparency of my national identity doesn’t alienate me from the Americans-abroad experience, it just gives me insight into a different facet of it.

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Update: Since this post was originally written, I've been keeping a list of nationalities ascribed to me. To date, I've heard: Russian eight times, Chinese four times, Japanese three times, English twice, and New Zealander, Australian, Italian, "Somewhere Spanish-speaking," and German once each. I'm still waiting for American.

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