Photo: Bricolage/Shutterstock

How I Became American

by Celeste Chan Oct 24, 2014

It was my first time in New Orleans. I was in town for an activist conference. It was before Hurricane Katrina. Before Mike Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, MO. The South was sweet and muggy. Time felt slower.

I wandered, along Tremé, Downtown, the French quarter, almost twisting my foot on the broken sidewalks that seemed like alleys. There were large white buildings that took up entire blocks, Victorian moldings, and high ceilings, their balconies beckoning. I saw a sign for plantation tours visible in a tourist brochure I picked up. My stomach dropped.

I took the bus to meet some new friends for food. Once I stepped on, I could feel eyes like pins on my back. I turned. My chubby body felt like white marble under unflinching stares.

After I got off the bus, someone called to me. “Where are you from?” I mumbled my response, and the voice became louder:

“Where are you REALLY from. No, where are you really from.”

Child of a Chinese immigrant, and a Bronx-born Jew, I got it. I was unintelligible, outside the realm of what people knew.

I met my new friends at Krystal for a burger. There was a swelling line around the corner. “I’m a white boy, you need to serve me first!” came from the lone lanky white man with dirty blond hair.

The line was full of black and brown people. It was hot. Suffocating. My new friend picked up a soda, and threw it at the white man. He stopped harassing the workers, turned all attention to us.

“Go back to where you came from…you…you…you…wontons!”

He didn’t even know the right racial epithets for us.

The American South. So full of history — and contradictions. New Orleans still held the legacy of slavery and present-day racial antagonism; I was both invisible, and yet hyper visible.

I softly apologized for whatever transgression I did. It was the first time anyone had declared me American.

The sweet welcome of my host (a friend of friends) softened my image of this antebellum port city, but did not completely undo the backward reactions experienced earlier in the day.

I flashed back, five years before. London. It was my first international trip. I stayed at a youth hostel. London was gray. And diasporic. There were actually plenty of people who looked like me. I noticed people from all over Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. No eyes fell upon me.

I could be from here, I mused to myself.

The youth hostel looked like a charming French building, with Victorian moldings. It was white and took up a whole city block. It could have been a private Catholic school, or a nunnery, depending on the century. I went down to eat breakfast — English tea and coffee, crumpets, and eggs.

After finding out how to take the train (“Mind the gap” blared repeatedly in my mind when I got lost in the English tunnel), I found the shopping center I was looking for.

My sister and I wandered around. Silver glittery running shoes jumped out at me. Knee socks shimmered in neon metallic. Leopard print scarves waved at me.

I asked the shopkeeper a question; I don’t remember what I said.

“You girls are American,” was her response. Her mouth tightened. “You girls are so American,” she said again. “You want it, and you want it now.”

I softly apologized for whatever transgression I did. It was the first time anyone had declared me American. I glanced around, to see if anyone heard her. No one looked me in the eye. I caught a glimpse of a McDonalds across the street, and a Spice Girls billboard with Baby and Scary and Posh staring down. They held my gaze. I lowered my eyes, saw the newspaper rack. “After 9/11…Shock and awe,” the headline said. I pondered my place in all of this.

I became American in that moment, by offending the British shopkeeper. It was a history I didn’t want to claim.

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