The third act of This American Life this week was really interesting. Story’s about an African-American woman living in Paris. There are three things she mentioned about her experience there that I resonated with also, partly from my own expat experience.
First, she talks about how she realized that French don’t see or treat black people in the same way Americans do, for both good and bad, and how that was a bit of a shock to her self-perception. I’ve related to this a little bit in the past couple years living the UK also. Because Asian-British are not seen in the same way that Asian-Americans are. I can’t even quite explain the difference. I’m probably not even aware of the full difference. But for example, I find the Asians (I mean East Asians – not the South Asians Brits mean by “Asian”) here are simultaneously more and less integrated. On the whole, I feel like their English language skills are better and they feel less like immigrants. At the same time, they feel never fully integrated. I’m doing a poor job explaining it, but it’s a weird feeling.
There’s also that the high-achieving areas aren’t dominated by Asians here, and that also affects how we’re seen. There’s no Stuyvesant or Lowell or Whitney in the UK, good schools that by virtue of their quality became dominated by Asians. Not sure why, maybe it’s just a different Asian population that ended up here. But it affects the perception. All this to say, I feel like Asians are seen slightly differently here than they are in the States, and it’s a kind of odd, unfamiliar feeling.
The most interesting thing she says in the TAL episode is how shocked she is when French people say how American she is. That totally gets to the heart of the minority experience in the US. But I think for her, me, and probably most minorities, we never feel fully American in America, never fully comfortable, always feeling slightly like an outsider. It’s shocking for her to be called American in character because she’s never fully felt that way. And it’s even more shocking to realize that it’s true – she is American. I totally relate to that as well. I had a conversation with a coworker about this last night. But most people don’t have enough bandwidth to categorize people by subtle distinctions. So when interacting with other people here, I kind of have to choose which category is most me, Asian or American. And to my shock, it’s my American side. I’m totally American.
It’s only shocking because in America, I think I’m categorized by others as Asian. If you ask me in America what category I belong to, there’s no question – it’s Asian. So it’s an odd feeling to be categorized as something else. And to resonate with those different categories in both places.
The last insightful thing she said related to how, despite gaining fluency in French, she at times reverted to a bad American accent, specifically because she wanted to be treated like an outsider. And when she thought about it, she realized it’s because there’s a part of her that’s actually more comfortable being on the outside.
I totally recognized myself in her comment and realized that explains a lot about me. And maybe that’s another odd part of the minority experience in America. But I also find that I’m more comfortable being on the outside. For example, when there are too many Asians around (read: Cupertino schools), I feel uncomfortable. Jieun thinks it’s a weird self-loathing thing. But I think the TAL gets to the heart of it more accurately. Whether it’s from accommodation or whatever, I’m more used to being on the outside, so I’m more comfortable there. I prefer to be a minority. It’s weird.