Me at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming
I recently tweeted that I love being abroad because I think about language, culture, and the United States all the time when I am. I stand by this assessment completely. When I am home or otherwise traveling in the US, I basically know how to do anything I need to. If there’s a problem, I know where to turn. If I need to buy something, I know where to go. I [mostly] know when a customer service representative is being rude or not.
This is definitely not the case when I go abroad. I’m currently in China, and even though I have Taiwanese heritage (my parents are first-generation immigrants) and I look like I belong here, I feel like I don’t. It’s not necessarily bad. There are times when not fitting in is terrible, but this is not exactly one of them.
Granted, I am relatively comfortable in being the “outsider” or “confused tourist” because I have enough experience in those types of situations. However, I think that it makes me appreciate the background that I do have because I see so many people who don’t have that same experience.
While I live in the US, there is not much reason to think specifically about race and being Asian American. I live there, and all I have to do is speak for people to know I’m American. Being abroad, however, is very different. Because I look Chinese, I have heard many locals call me Chinese and recoil when I tell them I’m American.
[Recommended Read: How to Learn a Completely New Language While Abroad]
Why the US is so US-Centric
The first thing to note is that I’m not trying to harp on Americans. I am one and I love the US, even if I get frustrated. In many ways, people of other countries are just as home country-centric.
The second is that this is something that I wondered about a lot, especially when I talked to people from other countries. They always seemed to know something about the US whereas Americans didn’t necessarily know anything about them. I always wondered why it was that so many people have never traveled outside the US, and some have never been outside their state!
I have a couple of ideas about this. The first is that so much of the world’s international interaction is conducted in English; the second is that the US has been the economic superpower for so long that our products and culture have permeated the international space. Think about how far-reaching our brands are. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, the New York Times, Friends, Beyonce, and our presidents are all well-known outside our borders.
The Spread of Language & CULTURE
Being in a place where people do not speak English on a daily basis always throws me off. Even though I grew up speaking mostly Chinese with my parents and grandparents and visiting Taipei every summer for at least a couple months, I was in for a culture shock when I arrived in South America alone. I barely spoke a lick of Spanish and it was then that I understood how it feels to be alienated because you can’t speak the local language.
I went to South America to get an education. Not a formal one with a degree at the end, but an informal one of a combination of language and culture – what sets each country apart from the next. That experience in itself taught me the vastness of what I didn’t know.
I grasped basic Spanish by the end of my trip, and I went back home to Austin happy. What I didn’t expect was the whole new world that opened up for me now that I knew basic Spanish. Here was a world that existed in the very place I had spent 20+ years of my life, and I never noticed it because it was all in a language I didn’t understand. Suddenly there was so much more to explore and so much more that I didn’t know. It was incredible. I had talked to my mentor before going to South America because I was scared I wouldn’t grow much more after the trip, but I was completely wrong. If anything, being home in a familiar environment, equipped with all my new knowledge, gave me the tools to open up what had always existed but I always ignored.
Of course, Spanish is one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world. Of course there would be an entire world of Spanish that I never knew existed. However, I can only think of the new possibilities – there are hundreds of languages in the world; what are we missing out on simply because we can’t read?
It’s not anyone’s fault that most Americans don’t know a second language. There is no one to directly blame; it’s just a product of history. The United Kingdom’s and Unites States’ roles in recent history meant that every other country had to learn English to interact with the two countries successfully. There wasn’t – and currently still isn’t – a real need to learn another language. Citizens of other languages learn English. I’m not saying that this is the way it should be, just that it is the way it is. At least for now.
Culture goes hand in hand with language. A culture cannot be shared or even manifested without language. Wherever English goes, American culture and standards often come along. If you have ever tried to learn a new language (outside of school), what resources did you use? I always try to supplement my vocabulary and grammar with books, music, and TV shows, creating exposure to brands that operate in that language. Not only do those resources help my language learning, they teach me the local culture as well. Language learners actively seek out these cultural products and learn about local life in the process.
[Recommended Read: How to Learn a Completely New Language While Abroad]
Why the Opposite Doesn’t Happen in the US
While most of us are required to take some foreign language in our education, there is no need for us to actively try to perfect that language in order to broaden our employment and other future possibilities. There is plenty of opportunity in our home country. If we want to go abroad, we can simply go and teach English. Those of us who want to learn something new are free to reach out and do it; those who don’t are often perfectly fine without. I CANNOT EMPHASIZE HOW LUCKY WE ARE TO HAVE THIS PRIVILEGE.
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What Makes Me American
A couple months ago, my cousins, aunt, and uncle from Taiwan came to stay with my family and me over a month. It was a tremendously long time to have another family taking up half the room in our house, and we all had a blast getting to know each other like immediate family. We all sat around the TV watching the Rio Olympics on TV when my cousin, who is 13, said to me and my brothers, “Do you guys root for Taiwanese athletes or the American athletes? The Taiwanese, right? You guys are Taiwanese, so of course.”
In that moment, my brothers, who are younger than I am, just started laughing. Without even thinking, they stated their claim on being American. I sided with them.
Immersing myself now in this Chinese culture that I had significant contact in growing up but never thought deeply about has triggered many questions for me. I have known for a long time that I am more American than Chinese or Taiwanese in almost every way, mostly because of where I grew up and culture that came with it. I never really knew what it was culturally that set me apart from the Taiwanese. It was travel that really helped me define what is at the essence of my Americanism – and why I cherish that part of my identity.
Freedom really is what makes the United States the United States. From the outside looking in, it’s really incredible that the United States can allow its citizens to say whatever they please – going as far as protecting action that relates to sending a message, including burning the US flag. It’s a virtue that I value so much and why, as much as I love so many other parts of the world, I don’t know if I could ever call any of them except the US home.
Take the internet as an example. Nowadays, the vast majority of what we know comes from what we read on the internet. I can’t keep up with the happenings of the US unless I’m on my computer. Because it’s such a large source of information, it has incredible power. While the internet itself is open – why else would I have this blog? – access to the information is not necessarily.
This issue is most apparent in China, where I am now, and where I would have to drastically change my internet usage if I used a local internet connection. The typical Chinese person might vaguely know of the existence of Google, Facebook, Twitter, DropBox, Instagram, YouTube, and all the other websites that we use every time we turn on our computers, but these are all blocked in China by the “Great Chinese Firewall”. On the one hand, it’s kind of incredible that the Chinese government has been able to keep all these websites blocked. On the other, these websites were blocked because they allow people to communicate in real time and see unfiltered search results. The blocking of these websites is a key part of keeping people “in line”. In China, they routinely use the word “propaganda” to describe official communication by government entities to the public.
In my first three weeks working here, I saw two instances of police collecting ID numbers of subway passengers. To connect to free Wi-Fi in places like Starbucks, you must enter your cell number. For a phone number, you register your ID number. To sign up for payment services and bank accounts, you must use a phone number. Control is everywhere. Privacy is not.
To a lesser extent, this limiting of information and expression exists in many other countries. The number of countries that block websites surprises me. In several countries, police will arrest you for insulting the monarch. For this reason, I realize how lucky I am to know where to find information when I need it. While the US has problems – the funding from dark money groups in politics, for example – the flow of information is much more open.
I feel constricted when I don’t have that freedom. If I have to sign a contract to rent a place for a year, I start to question the decision. When I think about having to “settle down” one day, I get nervous. My parents bought the house I grew up in and that they still live in 20 years ago. They’ve been together for almost 30. When I think about that, it’s like when journalists talk about the United States being trillions and trillions of dollars in debt. I can’t comprehend that!
I stayed for four years in college and had to study my last semester abroad because I felt so trapped. Though I had planned to stay for a year here in Beijing, I am already thinking of other possibilities.
Perhaps that’s the reason that I travel – so I don’t feel stuck where I am. So I can keep moving forward, exploring the world, improving myself.
[Recommended Read: Everything You Need to Know About Hong Kong]
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Why do you travel? What makes you proud of where you’re from?