HUFFPOST PERSONAL
11/13/2018 08:30 am ET

I'm American, But You Might Never Know It By Looking At My Life. That's The Point.

The author and her husband.
The author and her husband.

I’m American. That’s what my passport and accent will tell you, anyway. By looking at me, you would guess I’m from somewhere in Asia. By listening to my husband and children speak, you’d think we’re German. And by reading my writing, you’d say I’m British.

For as long as I could remember, I had struggled with my identity. Even from an early age, I didn’t know who ― or what ― I was.     

When I was 4, a few months after arriving in America and a few weeks before starting kindergarten, I went from being Ae-Yun to Amy. This was because my parents, on the advice of some Chinese friends, decided that my sister, my brother and I should have “American” names to help us better fit into our adopted country.

For me, this was one of the things my parents did right; I would have hated having a foreign name on top of looking different from everyone else and struggling to speak English.

I constantly struggled to fit in during my early years in the small Central California town where we lived, where my sister and I were the only nonwhites in our elementary school, let alone the only Asians. Kids could be cruel. To me, the calls of “ni hao” and “konichiwa,” the garbled made-up sounds that were supposed to pass for Chinese and the eyes pulled to make them look slanted were reminders that I was different and that I didn’t belong.    

After third grade, we moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles, where a lot of the small-town-America problems of being different faded. I felt I fit in more; teachers could pronounce my last name, and there were a lot of people who looked like me.    

For as long as I could remember, I had struggled with my identity. Even from an early age, I didn’t know who ― or what ― I was.

In my preteen years, I finally achieved a sense of who I was. Even if I didn’t look it, I felt like an American and had embraced the language, culture and pop culture as my own. I was an insider now. I belonged. This, however, came at the expense of my Mandarin skills and my knowledge of Chinese culture. At the time, this seemed like no great loss. I was secretly pleased to leave behind an aspect of myself that had brought me shame — while feeling ashamed that I wasn’t prouder of my heritage.

By the time I went to college in the late 1990s, Asianness had become, well, trendy. At least in LA. Everyone was eating and loving Asian food, business students were eager to learn Mandarin, and lots of white guys wanted to date Asian girls. Suddenly, it was cool to be me. And that was conflicting: I already felt like a bit of a traitor to my race, so if I started embracing my Chinese side just because it was cool now, what would that make me? A double sellout? Some shallow, fair-weather Chinese person?

And then, at the end of my 20s, I did something crazy: I moved to Munich to be with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. Was it going to be like being 4 all over again? Because once more, I would be an immigrant who didn’t understand the language, rules and nuances of a new country.

I had doubts about being able to learn a new language, get a job and fit in, but I dared to do it because I was secure in my American identity. I knew I’d still be understood even if I couldn’t speak German. I knew that having “native” English language skills and professional writing experience was an advantage for getting a job as an English copywriter in a German agency. I knew that many Europeans had a fascination for the U.S. and for American culture.

Four years in, when I was able to feel I fit in and came to love the country, its people and customs, we moved to England for three years for my husband’s postdoc, and then five and a half years ago, we moved to Switzerland so he could take an academic position.

Being an expat was an adventure, and through all these changes and new places, I wore my Americanness as the most consistent part of my identity. It was the one thing that anchored me to the place I still thought of as home when I wasn’t quite sure where I belonged in the world anymore.

Being an expat was an adventure, and through all these changes and new places, I wore my Americanness as the most consistent part of my identity.

So it came as a blow to me last year when my book editor told me that my novel, which is set in New York, had a distinctly British feel to it and I should consider resetting it in London. How could I be American if I couldn’t even write in American English anymore? At the same time, family members in the U.S. told me that I no longer sounded American and that my children spoke English with a slight German accent.    

At first, I was in denial. Then I felt sad. It was as if I had lost an essential part of me. But after a bit of time and perspective, I realized I hadn’t lost my American identity because I have lived in Europe for 12 years. Nor had I lost my Chinese identity when I became American. All along, I had been getting it wrong: I had viewed identity as something that was discrete and static, something that could be lost or replaced. When in actuality, my identity is the sum of all my experiences. It can be continually updated to encompass each new place and experience.

Redefining and extending my identity like this made me see that finally, no matter where I was, I would always fit in — among English-speaking expats, Germans living in Switzerland or Asians who grew up in the West.  

My husband and I try to instill in our sons, who were born in England and have a grandma born and raised in Mexico to German immigrants, this sense of appreciation for all the different aspects of who they are. Recently, they even started taking Chinese lessons because I want them to understand and appreciate this other side of them, this side that has and will always be an important part of me, even if, for a long time, I denied it.

My case may be extreme, but we all go through life changes that require us to re-evaluate the ideas we hold. To refocus or change the lens. To rewrite the story we tell ourselves and the world.

So now I’m not “just” American anymore, and I never really was “only” American, although that was the box I tried to fit myself into. I possess a Taiwanese birth certificate, a U.S. passport, a German marriage certificate and a Swiss permanent residency card, and each document is a piece of the puzzle that makes up who I am.

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