On Aliens and Americans

After around a year of living in Greece, the government sent us new identification cards when we tried to renew our visas. “Guest Resident,” the cards said. I recently came across my “Resident Guest” card when I was going through some old paperwork (along with my first passport, which includes a picture of a chubby frowning baby being held up in front of a backdrop at the State Department offices in San Francisco). I rather like the idea of being a “Guest Resident,” rather than a resident alien.

Puff and I were talking the other night about the tendency Americans have to identify people by the nations their parents came from, or that they came from when they were very young. Depending on how you look at it, I could be called a lot of things, thanks to the mixed ancestry of my forebearers. But what I really am is American, because I grew up largely in the United States, I learned in American schools, and I am steeped in American society and culture, for better or for worse. I wouldn’t identify as Basque, although I have Basque ancestors, because I don’t speak Euskara and I know nothing about Basque culture. Likewise, I’m about as Irish as a plate of keema naan, as British as traditional Polynesian tattoo*, as French as…well, you get the idea.

People who look physically different have the worst time of it. My black friends aren’t American, they are African-American. Likewise with by acquaintances of Asian ancestry…they may have been born and raised in the United States, they may not know any Asian languages, they may hate dim sum…but they are Asian-American, not American. My friend May gets mighty riled when people expect her to speak Chinese, because she’s fourth generation…I probably know more Chinese than her. Now, I understand that for some people this is a pride thing, celebrating the meld of two cultures.

But for others, I think it’s terribly alienating to be repeatedly told that you are only “American” with qualifications.

The issue has come up in the news a lot lately, thanks to the ethnic identity of the Virginia Tech shooter. Cho Seung-Hui was born in Korea, but spent most of his life in the United States. Yet, news site after news site identifies him as “Asian,” or “Korean,” as though to distance him from nice, normal Americans. Yet, Harris and Klebold were American. So were the Unabomber, McVeigh, and Nichols. The acts that they committed, in my opinion, were also uniquely American, products of the society that they lived in and were tormented by.

It does us no justice as a society to separate people as alien and American, because it leads to a fundamental disconnect, in my opinion. Foreigners do not go into college classrooms and shoot up wholesome American co-eds; Americans go into school classrooms and shoot innocent people, because of their very American-ness. The issues of isolation and alienation faced by Cho Seung-Hui may have been related to his “unAmerican” physical appearance, but they were also a product of the culture he lived in…had he transferred to an American college from Korea, strongly identifying with Korean culture, he probably would have had a very different experience. Now, for all I know, his family is all about Korean pride, and he actually did self identify as Korean, rather than American. I am going out on a limb here, I realize, but I think you can get my drift…at 23, he’d spent 2/3 of his life in the United States, and couldn’t help but be at least a little bit American.

Poor South Korea. Not only did the government extend official condolences after they learned of the attack, along with many other nations, but they felt compelled to apologize because the shooter was identified as Korean.

I have also been thinking about this issue in the context of gun control (short position statement: I think that hand guns serve no practical purpose, but they are awfully fun to shoot. I support restrictions, including waiting periods, on the purchase of guns.) A large number of European media claimed that the shootings would not have happened if this country had adequate gun control. And here’s where I am going to disagree, borrowing a line from the NRA: guns don’t kill people, Americans kill people, so to speak. Does anyone really think that gun control would have averted this tragedy? For Pete’s sake, a determined mass murderer is going to come up with something more creative, like blowing up a building…indeed, perhaps we should be thanking lax gun control laws because guns created less carnage than taking out a building would have.

A lot of Euro papers seem to be under the impression that they aren’t rife with school shootings because of their insanely restrictive gun control laws. Well, one, Europe has experienced school shootings, with legally acquired guns. Two, I think that school shootings, like apple pie and obesity, are an American export. Really, only our society is fucked up and insane enough to breed people who think that storming into a classroom and shooting the people who torment you is a good approach to the problem…and by all accounts, Cho Seung-Hui bred his own isolation, to some extent, which begs the question: who is to blame when someone ostracizes himself? Surely not innocent bystanders.

I think it’s important to respect someone when they self identify to me as Mexican, Thai, American, Asian-American, Pan-American, etc, since presumably they know about their cultural identity and history than I do, regardless as to what I might think based on their appearance. But I think it’s time to do away with this “alien” and “American” designation, because it’s too simplistic, and too often wrong.

*Yes, thank you, I am aware that British sailors during the Age of Exploration popularized Polynesian tattoo, but you get the point.

[cultural identity]