“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.