Monday, October 25, 2010

Being American--the South

We crossed the Mason-Dixon line over a week ago, right before entering the Dismal Swamp Canal, and it marked my first time in the South. (I don't count the visits to my sister in Sarasota, FL, since only 33% of Floridians are native-born, according to the state's 2005 census.) Menus are dominated by meat (including alligator, at a gas station grill on the Alligator River), which has me craving gigantic fresh salads. Looks-wise, the pines and cypresses of VA and northern NC have given way here in southern NC to yellow-green marsh grass, oaks, and small palms.

In one of my recent posts, I mentioned that I had had dinner with two war vets, and that it got me thinking about history and race. Not because I thought they were racist--they weren't at all--but because hearing them talk with Robert, the lockmaster in the Dismal Swamp, about their fathers and grandfathers who had served in WWI and WWII made me realize something: I am not as American as they are.

I know this sounds controversial but bear with me.

Growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs that I did until the age of 13, I was usually one of two or three Asian kids in my class. (Yes, in a city that is as diverse as Los Angeles--technically speaking--there were still places in it during the 80s where a Korean kid got nothing but "You know kung fu?" or "Ching chang chong.") It wasn't until I moved to the New York City area in my high school years that I knew what it felt like to blend in. There were so many ethnicities, subcultures, and a real sense of pride in being New Yorkers, i.e. different from the rest of America, that I felt right at home. The myth of America as quick melting pot seemed real in New York, and I could really believe that I was just as American as any other person--white, black, Asian or whatever ethnicity you like.

But all of America is not New York, where the present reigns supreme, and identity is whatever you want (or choose) it to be--and in as little time as you need. As I listened to these guys swapping stories about their fathers and grandfathers who served in this and that division of this and that branch of the U.S. military, I realized that a part of their identities were fashioned for them a long ways back, and that they shared common roots that I could never share. If I were to compare ancestral notes with them, we'd discover that we were either on opposite sides of history, or, as a Cat Power songline goes, "I'm on the same side as you, I'm just a little bit behind."

Just a few decades ago, South Koreans (and, in a more complicated relationship, perhaps, South Vietnamese) were dependent on the U.N./U.S. for military aid and economic aid. To most GIs, South Koreans of that post-Japanese colonialism and Korean War era resembled backwards peasants, emaciated refugees, charity cases. So even though Americans and South Koreans were never enemies, their first acquaintance wasn't exactly as equals. But then, the years go by, and Asian-Americans become "the model minority," entering Ivy League schools and the professional class, and even mainstream pop culture, and that first impression become obsolete, right?

I think the answer in 2010 for most is yes. However, I don't think that was the case with my parents' generation that immigrated in the 1970s. How could it be? If I were an American who had never known anything of Koreans but what I saw in the Korean War, wouldn't it take time to reconcile that primary experience with some new presentment? A Korean-American friend of mine who served in Afghanistan was aided and attacked by Afghans; how could he not have complicated feelings were he to come across an Afghan here in the U.S.? I imagine that his rational mind would differentiate between an Afghan in Afghanistan and an Afghan here, but could there also be an involuntary and immediate association with the only other time he encountered Afghans? If so, would the old association only lose primacy with time and continued dilution with more modern experiences?

But do the modern experiences--Asian-Americans who speak the same slang in the same accent as white Americans, play suburban high school football, work the same job in the next office, marry outside their ethnicities--really erase the first perception? After all, as much as Americans take pride in defining Americanness in terms of the democratic pioneer spirit--if you're entrepreneurial and build something from nothing in the U.S., you've earned the right to call yourself a true American--there remains an aspect to American identity that runs much deeper and holds greater value as a common denominator with Americans than education, common lifestyle, or even money and affluence. It's what my new cruiser friends and Robert the lockmaster shared. It's the reason that most U.S. presidents have trouble winning over Americans if they never served in the military, or no one in their family did. There's something about having spilled blood for the U.S., (voluntarily or not), that takes American-ness deep down to its roots. It's what perhaps drove Japanese-Americans during WWII to enlist--how else and more clearly to prove their American-ness? (Sadly, one generation's sacrifice wasn't enough: Japanese-Americans were still perceived to have their roots elsewhere, in Japan not the U.S., and divided loyalties.)

Maybe it's appropriate that I'm thinking about all this in the South, where the country's history is etched all around me, where the question of what an American is was most deeply tested, and where the common denominator of military service by two ancestral Americans may very well have divided them on opposite sides of a battlefield before time and new fights brought them back together.

(Please see my comment below, too.)

1 comment:

  1. I just want to clarify that while I may not think I'm as American, in an historical sense, as two war vets, that perception was relevant to me on a social, interpersonal basis, NOT a political one. How American one is in terms of identity and personal history is, in my view, totally irrelevant on a political level, since civil rights in the U.S. should protect all Americans, regardless of how many rings mark one's tree trunk.

    (Although even that gets complicated, since the US government interned Japanese-Americans, 62% of whom were U.S. citizens, during WWII. A distortion of my thoughts above might very well have been used to justify the internment, i.e. that young Americans with roots elsewhere are *necessarily* loyal first to the root-nation. This distortion would be untrue. Because if I am not as American as a war vet from a line of war vets, it is also true that I am not as Korean as my parents are, or Korean soldiers in Korea. And the U.S. betrayed its own principles when it abused the understandable fear that individual Japanese-Americans might secretly sympathize with and aid the Japanese to generalize that fear and intern a whole class of Americans.

    Also, the rings in the tree trunk is complicated too since the Constitution offers less protection to legal aliens than citizens, so that the formalities of citizenship are actually quite meaningful.

    But I end here, because one could go on and on, considering all the complexities and impossibilities of discussing American identity--political, cultural, historical--and all.)