Why I Am Insistent On My Americanness: One Perspective from an Asian American PCV in Morocco

“Ana mirikaniya.” I am American.

Hundreds of Peace Corps Volunteers in Morocco have said this countless times. But for me, it is more than descriptive. As an Asian American living in North Africa, I am both hyper-visible and completely unseen.

Many of these things are not new. As a woman of color, the harassment and microagressions I get are often the same as back home. My reactions to the harassment and microagressions are the same as well. Embarrassed, frustrated, sad, irritated, enraged. Sometimes I ignore it because I don’t have the energy to insist on people treating me like a human being. Sometimes I ignore it because I’m too busy—on my way to teach my brilliant class or meet with amazing community members—and I don’t have time to engage with garbage people. Sometimes I shout back, with varying degrees of fire and wrath.

But what has changed is this sentence. How often it trips off my tongue. How it has embedded in my throat. “I am American.” I never used this sentence in America. I insist on it with alarming frequency in Morocco.

I am insistent on my Americanness because I am insistent on my authenticity.

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because I know the next utterance will be an incredulous “bssaaaaaa…?”

Really? How could that be true?

“Ana kbrt f mirikan. L’3ila diali kay-sknu f mirikan. Jinsiya diali mirikaniya. 3ndi paspor mirikan. Taqafa diali mirikaniya…iwa, 3lash mashi hqiqa?”

I grew up in America. My family lives in America. My nationality is American. I have an American passport. My culture is American… so, why is this not true?

I have never felt more American than I do now. Growing up in Washington State, I was always very insistent on my Taiwaneseness. I clung to my roots. But when I moved abroad, I began to realize how very American my cultural codes were. As proud as I am of my roots, as much as my heritage defines me—I started to understand how steeped in American culture I am.

The Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, whom I quote on most occasions, said, “Travel helps you figure out who you are and how your own culture controls you.”

Moving to Morocco has made me acutely aware of how American so many of my thoughts and actions are. It would be dishonest to say I am not American. Americanness is woven into the fabric of who I am.

I am insistent on my Americanness because I am insistent on my complexity.

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because I know the next sentence will be, “wilakin, wjj3k…?”

But, your face…? Your face tells one story. Your voice tells another.

I am defined by both. And I refuse to let anyone see only the surface.

I contain multitudes. I am Taiwanese. I am Han Chinese. I am Asian. I am a Seattleite. I am a Washingtonian. I am American. None of these identities contradicts one another. They all exist within me. I refuse to let anyone simplify who I am.

If you’re insistent on a binary, on an either/or, then I’m sorry for the shallowness of your mind.

“Where are you from?” “But where are you really from?” “I mean, where are your parents from?” “But what are your origins?”

This is nothing new. I’ve heard it my entire life.

Although my phenotype makes me far more visible in Morocco, almost nothing anyone says to me here is new. People shout country names at me like we’re on a geography quiz show. People feel that perverse urge to play the ethnic guessing game—and look so self-satisfied when they “get it right.” People want to know my nationality before they want to know my personality. People presume. People have an immediate need to pinpoint my genetic code.
And of course, when called out on it, people are shocked that I would be offended by their intrusion. But listen. Most of the time, we’re not having an equal conversation about identity and race and heritage. Most of the time, we’re just satisfying your curiosity and disregarding my discomfort. Some of is well intentioned. Most of it is not. And, in this case, intention does not matter. The impact is the same. So whether it’s a sleazebag harassing me on the street or a well-meaning acquaintance interrogating me, I end up feeling the same way: otherized and unseen.

I am insistent on my Americanness because I am insistent on my representation.

“Ana mirkaniya,” I say, and what I mean is “Hna mirikaniyin.”

We are American. But who is we?

People don’t believe I’m American because of dominant hegemonic power structures in the world. People don’t believe I’m American because my story isn’t the one amplified on the world stage.

Listen. Most of the racial harassment I get in Morocco is clearly derived from Western media. Not to take the blame off the asshole individuals who harass me, but it is extra galling that their main source material is whitewashed Hollywood.

I don’t just insist on my Americanness for me. I insist on it because I bear the burden of representing Asian Americans abroad. I am often the first Asian American person someone in my community has ever met.

I don’t insist on my Americanness because I am ashamed of my roots—quite the opposite.

I don’t insist on my Americanness because I think America is better than Taiwan. In actuality, I have a problem with over-romanticizing Taiwan. And in fact, I am often quite cynical and critical of the country I grew up in.

And I don’t insist on my Americanness simply to show host country nationals how diverse America is—although that is one aspect of my work. That answer is too simplistic.

As a self-identified global citizen, I insist on my Americanness because I want to tell the whole tale.

I am insistent on my Americanness because I am insistent on my true story.  

“Ana mirikaniya,” I start with, because if I start with “Ana Taiwaniya,” the conversation will end there. “Ana mirikaniya” invites further questioning. It allows me to clarify, to complicate myself, to fully explain who I am. “Ana Taiwaniya” satisfies those who want to pinpoint the features of my face and no more.

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because it allows me room to continue. It allows me to add a “but” or a “and also.”

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because that’s the answer to the question asked.

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because stories have to start with a hook.

I struggled for the past year trying to write this—still unfinished—story down. My authentic, complex, representative, true story. I don’t want to placate anyone with platitudes about “melting pots” and “immigrant nations.” (Both of these are colonialist myths anyways.) I can’t tell the whole story, because I’m just one person with one perspective and one set of experiences. And I can’t lie—the ignorant reactions to my racial phenotype are the HARDEST part of living here. It makes me tired and heartsick and angry.

I acknowledge those feelings, which are legitimate feelings. But I also refuse to let these challenges define my time in Morocco, let alone my entire existence.

In March, when we attended the English Teacher’s Conference in Errachidia, one of the teachers approached me after a presentation and asked me, “Where are you from?” After a brief hesitation, I said, “Seattle, Washington.” He then told me this:

“I grew up in a very, very, very small village in the Sahara. Can I tell you something? Growing up, I never realized how diverse and complicated the world was. When I was fifteen, my town got a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was like you. We all thought she was Chinese when she arrived. When I asked her where she was from and she said America, I didn’t believe her. I didn’t know anything! Now I do. I just wanted to thank you for what you are doing here. And to tell you, if you run into people—people who are like the way I was back then—that you really are making a difference. Maybe stupid kids like I was will be inspired to go to school, study more languages, become teachers, and they will teach others too.”

As down as I get some days, I’m also hopeful that perhaps my authentic, complex, representative true story does have value. And when I think about Morocco, I don’t think about some asshole shouting at me on the street. I think about all of the extraordinary people I’ve met here—and how I may be the first Asian person they’ve met, the first American person they’ve met, the first Asian American person they’ve met, or even in many cases, the first non-Moroccan person they’ve met. And how, despite that novelty, they do see me as a whole complex human being.

That’s all I’m insisting on—to be seen as I am.

Yours Truly,

Julie

 

“For me, volunteering abroad is an act of selfishness.”

This is an excerpt from an open letter I wrote to my friends and family in August 2013, while we were in the process of applying for the Peace Corps. Before we knew we were going to Morocco. Before we knew anything. These thoughts I had are a vital part of my personal journey.

Let’s get something straight here—I’m joining the Peace Corps for selfish reasons.

When people tell me that this decision is so “selfless” and “noble” of me, I feel very uncomfortable. The main problem is that this line of thinking reeks of privilege. It’s a complicated issue, and I’m afraid of oversimplifying it, but I’ll do my best here… Teaching English abroad is at best a Band-Aid-over-gaping-wound solution (temporary, superficial, inconsequential in the long run) and at worst an act of colonialism. International lenses are pivotal to social justice movements, but it is disingenuous to treat international volunteers as idealized “do-gooders.” Voluntarism is problematic. Good intentions are not enough. (See: TOMS shoes).

No rose-colored glasses here, but also… not as much cynicism as you might think. Criticizing something does not mean I think that thing completely sucks! It simply means that it is worth being cognizant about. I’m critical about a lot of things I like. (See: Game of Thrones, T.S. Eliot, Starbucks). The difference with the Peace Corps is that I am in a position to do more than passively criticize it—I can actively work to bring awareness to certain issues. By that, I do not mean colossal human rights issues like educational equity or human trafficking or racial justice. Productive and profound work still needs to be done in these arenas, but I’m referring to something just as systemic but much more difficult to pin down. I’m trying to discuss the kind of privilege that drives people to join the Peace Corps—not something to feel guilty about, but something to be aware of. It’s a difficult thing to maintain awareness of one’s own privilege. Anyways, these thoughts aren’t full or complete. I’m still working it out. These are not my last or definitive thoughts on the matter.

As the old saying goes—what is right is not always what is easy. We have to follow some basic “rules” (i.e. Do not usurp the voice of another community. Do not start unsustainable projects that will be abandoned in two years, etc.) and I have to be completely honest. I’m not joining the Peace Corps because I’m “altruistic”—I’m joining because it’s a job that happens to encompass all of my passions and because it’s a stepping stone towards what I want to do with the rest of my life.

I am NOT thinking: “I can save all those poor starving third-world children.”
I am thinking: “I will build the skills and experience I need for the field I want to work in.”

I am NOT thinking: “It is super gallant of me to give up American luxuries to serve the greater good.”
I am thinking: “I can travel. I can learn a new language. I can work with community programs. I can teach English. I will have more time to read and write. These are my favorite things!”

I am NOT thinking: “The global scale of my altruism makes it even more significant.”
I am thinking: “I can do the type of work I care about while making a positive impact on a community. Plus, this will be a good chance to learn more about the complexities of human rights and global development.”

I am NOT thinking: “I can change the world.”
I am thinking: “I can make my life richer and more resonant, and hopefully be a positive force in the lives of people around me.”

Now, two and a half years later, I’m still working it out. I still don’t have any definitive answers. And I think that’s okay! These thoughts are a process. A journey I’ll have for the rest of my life. 

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Why We’re Here: Peace Corps Personal Statements

Our first post on this blog was about where we live, what we do, and how we are. This one is about an even more important question: why we’re here. To that end, we’re going to share our personal essays from our Peace Corps applications. They ask for two main statements, one of motivation and one on cross-cultural experiences. These are our motivation essays, aka our official reasons for joining the Peace Corps! We wrote these in 2013, but we stand by these words still.

The Prompt:

“Peace Corps service presents major physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges. You have provided information on how you qualify for Peace Corps service elsewhere in the application. In the space below, please provide a statement (between 250-500 words) that includes:
• Your reasons for wanting to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer; and
• How these reasons are related to your past experiences and life goals.
• How you expect to satisfy the Peace Corps 10 Core Expectations (please be specific about which expectations you expect to find most challenging and how you plan to overcome these challenges).”

Who knew we'd end up here? (Swearing In Ceremony, April 2015)

Who knew we’d end up here? (Swearing In Ceremony, April 2015)

Robert’s peace Corps Personal Essay:

To me, serving in the Peace Corps is an opportunity I cannot let slip away. It is a program that encompasses so many of my dreams because it allows me to fulfill many of my own goals while simultaneously helping others.

Although the list of things I wish to accomplish in life is long, it is astounding how many serving in the Peace Corps will accomplish. I want to learn a different language, I want to be immersed into an entirely different culture, and I want to travel. One of my primary goals in life has been to help people in a meaningful way and I feel that Peace Corps uniquely provides me with that opportunity. By serving in Peace Corps, I would be given the time to truly understand what the problems are in a community—not only on a superficial basis, but in a cultural context as well. This in-depth understanding would allow me to help problem-solve ‘with’ the community as opposed to doing it ‘for’ them.

What motivates me most is how well Peace Corps overlaps with my life aspirations. I plan to go to medical school to become a primary care physician. One of the most overlooked things in medicine is the need to make a bond with your patients, the need to make a connection with each person on an individual level. I truly could not think of better training for this than being thrust into a different culture where one’s success as a volunteer is dictated by the connections one makes in the community.

In my desire to help people I have come to understand that no problem can be fixed overnight. It takes commitment, it takes patience, and most of all it takes respect from both parties. The only way to gain this respect while living abroad in a different community is to follow the cultural norms and practices of wherever you are living. This to me will be the most challenging part of serving abroad. However, this is not to say that this will deter me. I feel emboldened by this challenge, because this gives us an opportunity to show our community different cultural norms.

I cannot wait for the adventures and challenges that Peace Corps will present my wife and me, and I hope that through my service I will be able to leave a lasting effect on my community.

Julie’S PEACE CORPS PERSONAL ESSAY:

Whenever I thought about my post-graduation, pre-grad school plans, I always came back to the same themes. Traveling. Teaching. Volunteering. I want to serve as aPeace Corps Volunteer because I want to share my passion for language and creative expression with other people by empowering their own individual voices. The Peace Corps is an opportunity to do everything I’ve ever wanted: to travel, to live abroad, to teach my passion, to be a global citizen, to empower youth, to help alleviate poverty through self-determination, and to be directly involved with education equity issues.

I have been a volunteer and advocate for education equity for many years, and because of my experiences, I have come to realize the vital role that language plays in the world and the inflaming effect it can have on individual lives and social justice movements. The Peace Corps is a focused and hands-on way to impact the issues I care about most. Not only will serving with the Peace Corps build the skills I need as a future teacher, but it will allow me to continue to make a difference while engaged with my passions. I want to continue serving my community—and why should I limit the borders of that community?

The Peace Corps’ core expectations ask volunteers to serve “under conditions of hardship, if necessary.” I know that my service will present challenges that I cannot foresee or directly prepare for, which is why “effective service” requires flexibility. While I can say with certainty that I hope to dedicate my career to cultural understanding and community service, I admit that these are idealistic phrases that are often difficult to reconcile with the concrete daily challenges I might encounter. Because of this, I will need to truly utilize my adventurousness—a code word for my adaptability, open-mindedness, and appreciation for difference. I will need to constantly expand the lines of my comfort zone.

I’ve dealt with linguistic barriers as a former ELL student and a current ELL teacher. I’ve addressed issues of race and gender as a woman of color in the United States. I’ve worked under unfamiliar rules and regulations, complex social situations, and the pressure of improving human quality of life. These obstacles have made me into a more empathetic teacher and a more creative problem solver, but they will be on a much larger scale in the Peace Corps. Committing to my work will be a greater challenge in every way—and it is a challenge I can’t wait to undertake.

 


 

This post is also the first in a new series of posts we’re launching this year: Should I Join?. It’s all about the whys of our journey and the whats of our futures. The vast majority of our readers who contact us are people who are considering the same path we’re on, and we hope that this series will help them! Questions we will answer (based only on our experiences, of course) include:

  • Should I join the Peace Corps?
  • What should I expect when I’m applying for the Peace Corps?
  • What should I expect when I join the Peace Corps?
  • Should I join the Peace Corps as a married couple?
  • Should I join the Peace Corps as a person of color?
  • Should I join the Peace Corps if I want to go into academia as a career path?
  • Should I join the Peace Corps if I want to go to graduate school for something other than international development/public service?
  • Should I join the Peace Corps if I want to go to medical school?
  • Should I join the Peace Corps Morocco Program?
  • Should I join the Peace Corps Youth Development Sector?

You should definitely join us for this blogging journey, at least! There will be much more to come.

Yours Truly, 

Robert & Julie

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015