Ethnicity v. Nationality

“What’s your nationality?”

I cringe whenever I hear this question. Okay, perhaps almost everytime I hear this question, particularly in the settings that I’ve been accustomed to. When things are so potentially heated in this melting pot of a country (maybe just city), I do not understand how definitions of ethnicity and nationality are used so interchangeably.

Let’s get this straight here. “American” is not (yet) an ethnicity just as certain as “Shiite” is not a nationality. If you’re a citizen of the United States, your nationality is “American,” pure and simple. You could be of any familial or tribal descent but if you can vote here, you are an American.

And then I hear fellow Asian Americans talk about their fellow Asian Americans’ “nationality” in a completely wrong manner – for instance, to describe this hoochie mama of a girl who’s Korean or that cowboy of a guy who’s Chinese – both of whom speak perfect English. Come on, guys.

Further the plight. Get your English right.

Cue the flashbacks of grade school, of middle school and of high school. “What nationality are you?” they’d ask me. When I told them “American” – which is a correct answer yet one I knew they weren’t looking for – they’d say, “No really. What are you?” They might even show some annoyance. I knew what they meant. Like, what country are your parents from?

Because if your parents are from a foreign country, or you’re not white, then you automatically are foreign, too? But I’d play dumb. “Ohhh…like what ethnicity.” Because I was going to give them a tiny piece of my mind. I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – just as certainly as they were. For that matter, my parents are American citizens too.

My brother had a trick he told me. He said, “Ask them how old they are. If you’re older than they, you can say you’re more American than them.”

I didn’t have the guts to do that in my young age, when I was concerned that people liked me and that was more or less a call for appeasement. But I’m content to toss that under the “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” category of my adolescent years.

Sometimes, though, I’ll question my tendency to get mad. To demand that my fellow Asian American comrades get everything straight is either expecting too much or a reasonable place where I want us all to to get to. I am leaning toward the latter. Because I honestly don’t think it’s too much to ask. We compose 2% of the American population, folks. I feel strongly about the trap of not letting one or two represent the sum of its parts – but at the same time if we don’t have our information or language right, how are we to correct others when they are wrong about us since we don’t even know, or can’t even tell??

I still remember an argument I had with another member of the 50% ethnically Asian UCLA population in my Freshman year. I was so frustrated that I had left the argument in tears. Freshman year was a very unhappy time of mine, a time when I was disillusioned with the insular majority. It was amazing to me how lucky everyone was to have grown up where they did yet didn’t know it and therefore took it for granted – and I expressed this to the guy. I had tried to convey that there was “so much more” out there in the rest of the world and if we don’t prep our skills for dealing with the “real world” where we aren’t the majority, and instead the extreme minority, then we’re flat-out stuck. His answer was, “Why would I ever leave here?”

My “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” answer now: Because you might not have a choice; or, you might eventually want the choice and you won’t have the skills to acquire it.

You know, ignorance really is bliss. It’s complacency – and if you’re happy with that, then so be it. Just please try not to insult everything I’ve worked so hard to understand thus far.

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