On She Goes

Being an Expat Made Me Reexamine Identity Politics

Who gets to claim American?

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert
Priscilla Totiyapungprasert
June 19, 2017
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“But where are you from ursprünglich? China? Japan?”

They’re asking me where I’m originally from. Since moving to Munich, Germany, more than five years ago, this has been a somewhat common follow-up question, usually from older Germans, after I tell them I’m from Texas and surprise flits over their faces. It’s the kind of question I got growing up as the daughter of a Thai father and Lao mother in Hurst, a predominantly white suburb in the American South, from the 1990s to 2000s. You can move across the ocean and still find yourself politely answering the same questions, just in another language. It’s identity politics at work.

There’s a middle-aged doctor in Kirchheim, a village outside Munich, who talks to me with a certain tenderness, like I’m a swamp girl fresh off a boat from Thailand. I tell him I moved here from the US, but he has decided I am from Thailand because it suits him better. When I’m in the city, it’s friends and acquaintances—young, educated, mostly middle class, and usually well traveled—who are quick to defend my honor. “She’s not Asian; she’s American,” they assert to people who (correctly) say I’m Asian. I can’t fault them for trying to separate themselves from people like the Kirchheim doctor, but what they don’t realize is that in one sentence, they have also erased an entire part of my heritage. An entire swath of specific experiences, family, and history that make up who I am as an Asian American—all gone. In an effort to be righteous, these well-intentioned white people have decided my identity for me.

You can move across the ocean and still find yourself politely answering the same questions, just in another language. It’s identity politics at work.

“Identity politics” is one of those catchy phrases that popped up a lot in think pieces and op-eds during the 2016 presidential election. The EU has also been going through its own wave of identity disputes that have surrounded events like Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the rise of right-wing nationalism. It’s the small interactions, however, that help me understand how individuals think. Interactions like asking me, “Are you more Asian or more American?” I don’t hear this question every time I meet someone, but it crops up every year from a new white friend or acquaintance. I was confused the first couple of times I heard it because no one had ever asked me this question when I was stateside. If they knew I was born in and spent my entire life before Germany in the US, why would they ask if I’m from mainland Asia? If I meet someone who says they are from France, I don’t ask them if they’re French. “More American because I grew up there . . .” I would answer slowly, not understanding. I had felt like I was missing out on some key information, like we were on different wavelengths.

Later it dawns on me that this question reveals more about them than it does about me because when they ask if I’m more Asian or more American, what they’re really asking me is: Are you more white or more Asian? Are you like me or not? Oh, you can be a fusion, sure, but where does your loyalty lie? In their view, race and nationality are mutually exclusive if you look nonwhite, and they were making me choose. This is different from the US, where people acknowledge race more casually and nobody—at least in the parts I lived—ignores my Asian heritage, or asks if being Asian makes me less American (whatever that even means). My best friend, who has Eastern European grandparents, wouldn’t be asked if he was more European or more American. He’s white, so when he says he’s American, people nod and accept him as a full-blooded, apple-pie-and-baseball, good ol’ American. Identifying as white and identifying as American are one and the same for people who look like him. He has jokingly complained that he wants to be exoticized like me, too.

Identifying as white and identifying as American are one and the same.

Somehow, perhaps through Hollywood and pop culture, America has been painted as a white person’s country that happens to have some people with “otherness” living in it. So for the lot of us who aren’t typically featured in mainstream media, we have the additional responsibility of explaining to non-Americans what makes us American. It takes only a couple minutes to indulge in this extra effort, but it serves as a reminder: to be white is to be normal.

Recently I became friends with a Vietnamese German, a Munich boy about my age who grew up here. He’s still amused by people who ask him if he speaks German, or compliment his language skills. They might ask him if he’s more German or more Vietnamese. It turns out you can move across the ocean and find someone like you, politely answering the same questions, just in another language.