Before traveling outside the United States, I never felt much like an “American” either a good one or a disappointing one.
After living in Japan for a year, I began to identify myself as an American. But I seemed to frequently fail to fulfill hopes and expectations about what “an American” would be.
How did I become “an American”?
Well, there’s the obvious answer – I was born in the United States. But a more subtle change in my identity happened through language when I was living in Japan.
In Japan, I was frequently asked, “Where are you from?” Up until that point, I had mostly been asked that question by fellow Americans, and even more specifically by people from Massachusetts.
I would respond, “Acton,” the name of my town.
In Japan, it didn’t make sense to be that specific. So when people in Japan asked me where I was from, I started to answer “Boston,” since I thought it would be a large enough city to be known. Turns out, Boston was too specific. Over my year living in Japan, I started to answer with increasingly broad geographic areas.
Where are you from?
Where are you from?
>> New England
Where are you from?
>> The eastern side of the United States.
In the end, I started answering in the simplest way I could. When people asked me where I came from, I responded – AMERICA. And that’s how I stopped thinking of myself as a New Englander, and identified myself as an American.
California-themed lunch box in Japan.
It felt a little strange since to me America is such a big and varied country.
But to be fair, I was doing the same thing to lots of other people. I would meet other international students and in my mind label them as “the Chinese student” or “my Indian labmate.” Fully aware that India and China are both incredibly diverse and large countries. Even worse, sometimes I thought of people as “from Europe,” and in one fell swoop, I lumped an entire continent together!
I need to learn more geography.
Clearly I need to work on my geography, so that I can do a better job knowing where people come from. I started the project of learning more several years ago, when I received a beautiful world atlas from my sister.
I’m still working on it…
I might not know my way around world geography but I can navigate my way around the Japanese train system!
You don’t know that? Aren’t you American??
So once my status as “an American” was established, I would be introduced to people that way. Like, “This is Jessy. She is from America.” Sometimes people were excited to talk to me because they had questions about America, or wanted to talk to me about some aspect of American culture that they had experienced.
And that’s when I started to disappoint people. Here are just a few ways that I did not quite live up to expectations about being an American.
#1 – I’m short.
I stand a respectable 5’4” (or 162 cm).
The average height for females in the US is 5’4″ – 5’5″ (163 – 164 cm). So I am on the short side, but not embarrassingly so. In Japan, the average height for females is 5’2” (157 cm) meaning that I am actually on the tall side in Japan!
Unfortunately I am not quite tall enough to be a towering and impressive American female. I showed up to dinner with one of my friends. Before I arrived, she had already introduced me to our dinner companions, saying that “an American female exchange student” would be coming.
When I arrived, one of our dinner mates lamented that I was quite short “for an American.” He also commented that I was not busomly blessed. Ah well, we cannot all be _INSERT TALL ACTRESS NAME HERE_ or _INSERT BUSTY ACTRESS NAME HERE_. (Wonder why there are no names here? Check out Reason #4 below!)
#2 – I never went to prom.
The idea of prom seems to be a fantasy for many Japanese.
The exposure to the glamorous world of “the prom” is probably from scenes in many American television shows and movies. School dances do not really exist in Japan. So the idea of having essentially romantic coupling events sponsored by school is quite unfamiliar in Japanese culture.
Prom scene from Twilight. This is what your prom looked like, right? 🙂
From outside American culture, it seems that prom looks so exciting – high school students getting all dressed up and (possibly) getting into all kinds of trouble. Prom seems to be a far cry from the much more wholesome “school sports days” that happen in high schools in Japan.
In Japan, people often asked me, “Is prom really like that?” I definitely appreciate their acknowledgement that the fictional scenes in movies might not match the reality. Unfortunately I could not satisfy their curiosity because I did not go to prom. I never even went to any school dances. I did attend one “Father Daughter Dance” in elementary school, but I hardly think that counts.
My idea of a fun weekend evening… Hanging out in the library.
#3 – I don’t have blonde hair.
Seeing as I am half-Japanese, my hair is rather dark.
I have been told by several hair stylists that the color is my hair is unusual and would be hard to replicate with dyes, but I have also disappointed people for not having flowing golden locks.
My hair. Pretty much the opposite of golden and flowing.
I am not even sure what color to call my hair. This is a slightly sensitive point for me.
In preschool that my teacher used construction paper to make a mural depicting all the kids in the class. For my hair, she selected a sheet of black construction paper. I was quite upset. I said my hair is brown not black. I think she showed me that the black paper more closely matched my hair than the brown paper.
I am not sure what happened with the construction paper mural but ever since then, I have rather stubbornly insisted that my hair is “very dark brown.”
#4 – I don’t know many American celebrities.
I am a little embarrassed to say that a lot of my Japanese friends know much more American pop culture than I do.
Last time I was in Japan, K’s dad and I watched a bunch of American movies during New Year’s vacation. The cable channel that plays dubbed American movies is called “WOWOW.” Well I was saying “wow” because I could hardy name any of the movie stars and K’s dad seemed to know all of them.
I mean I got the obvious ones like “Tom Cruise” but I missed way more than I knew.
Quick! Name the celebrity. How did you do? Want to try some more?
Some people have asked me if it is hard to be in an intercultural relationship (my boyfriend K is a Japan-born Japanese) because I cannot easily make references to pop culture. I always say it is not a problem because I don’t know hardly any American popular culture to begin with.
#5 – I do not frequent fast food restaurants.
Another fail as an American. I don’t really eat fast food.
I don’t have any problem with fast food. I just don’t particularly like it. And it isn’t like I have never eaten fast food. As a kid, I used to eat Egg McMuffins at McDonalds.
(Image credit: Wikipedia.)
My family used to live on an island in the Pacific Ocean. There were no chain restaurants or stores on the island. There was one restaurant called the “Yokwe Yuk Club.” I think in the native language of that island “Yokwe Yuk” means “welcome” or something nice like that. Unfortunately the name sounds dangerously close to “yuck.” Most people on the island took to calling the restaurant “The Yuck” partly in jest and partly because it pretty well described the bland, cafeteria-level food there.
“The Yuck.” Not much to look at from the outside either…
(Image credit: Shermie’s Place.)
So when we used to travel off the island during the summer, we often got Egg McMuffin sandwiches at McDonald’s in the airport, as a treat and as an introduction back to the States. Other than that, I did not eat much fast food. And actually I arrived to Japan not having ever eaten at Subway or KFC, or having ever tasted a McDonald’s burger.
The Japanese temple where I enjoyed my first McDonald’s burger in 2011.
My first ever McDonald’s burger was a Teriyaki Burger in Japan. A visitor came to the temple where I was staying as an exchange student and brought a bag of McDonald’s burger, since she had heard that I was from America. I think she wanted to give me something familiar. It was my first burger from the classic American fast food chain.
Similarly, the first Subway sandwich I ate was in Japan. I also ate at KFC for the first time in Japan.
Eating KFC in January 2016 for the first time!
#6 – I am not that loud.
Sometimes I can be noisy. And I have been warned for talking too loudly or rustling about. But generally I am a pretty quiet person. I think most of my teachers in college would have preferred me to speak up more, not less.
Americans have a reputation (probably somewhat well earned) for being noisy.
Last year, I visited Japan on a fellowship. About half the fellows were Americans and the remaining half came from Canada, France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.
During orientation, all 120 of us ate our meals together in a noisy cafeteria space. One day I left the meal early. As I left the deafening din of people eating, I found several tables of people quietly eating outside. It seemed that many of the European graduate students had escaped from the Americans to enjoy a quieter meal outside.
The last day of the orientation we all boarded a bus to drive back to Tokyo. A friendly student from Romania boarded the bus after me. There were two seats remaining, one by me and one beside another American. The Romanian student sat next to me. He said, “I think I will sit next to you. You don’t look like a noisy American” he said.
“I am an American though,” I insisted. “I know,” he said, “But you are so nice and quiet not like others.”
Thanks for reading! Do you feel that you represent the place where you were born well? Or perhaps not? Leave any comments and questions below!