There's a guy I've known since the mid-'80s. We lived in the same apartment building in Hollywood, and because we were both into collecting music -- especially these shiny new things called CDs -- we hit it off really well. He had a bass, I had a guitar, so sometimes we'd try to play along with songs from our growing CD collections. ("Synchronicity II" was a particular favorite of ours, though I'm sure we would have made Sting and Andy cringe.)
Anyway, we'd been great friends, tried to keep in touch after he moved out of state, but in the pre-social media days, it wasn't easy. So I was happy when we'd reconnected on Facebook. But a few months ago, something strange began to happen. He started attacking me for expressing my political views on Facebook. (Those of you who know me know my affiliations, but I'm not going to open that can of worms here.)
His attack, while politically motivated, wasn't about my politics, per se. Instead, he challenged my right to speak out on American affairs while living outside the country. And while I knew his claim was 100% ridiculous, it did get me thinking about my situation as someone who is straddling countries and cultures.
I am an American. Nothing can change that. It's my birthright. It's where I was born and raised, where I went to school, had a long career, and spent the first 51 years of my life.
But now, I'm living in China. I sold my home in America and bought one here. I'm living here full-time. In fact, because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, I've now been in China for over a year without venturing outside the country. Though I still have to file American tax forms with the IRS, my taxes are paid in China.
So... who am I?
On the streets of Zhangjiagang, I am a minority. I'm one of maybe a couple hundred foreigners in a town of nearly a million and a half people. I'm a stranger in a strange land. It can be disconcerting at times. Yes, sometimes I will get funny looks. Yes, sometimes I will get stares. Usually, a smile and a friendly "Ni hao" will bring a smile to their faces, but not always.
Although I'm trying to learn the language, it's not an easy one, and my progress has been slow. Sometimes, I'm the stupid foreigner who has to rely on translation apps to talk to others or figure things out. (Fortunately, I've made many local friends who have been very patient with me, and that makes me feel better. A lot of them are also trying to learn English, so we may fumble around in each other's languages as we speak.)
At the same time, though, I am appreciated as a foreigner and an American.
People know why I'm here. Many of them have kids in school, and they appreciate the work we do as foreign teachers in their classrooms.
Just as importantly, I am an ambassador. The Chinese have access to Americans and Western culture through news programs, some TV shows, some movies, and some music. But, for many of the locals I've met, I'm one of the first "real live Americans" they've ever gotten to meet and know.
In that way, I am more than just an American. It is my responsibility to be a model American. To share my culture while respecting theirs. To show them a sort of real-world, person-to-person kindness they may not see on the news or in a Marvel movie. To be a good neighbor and not an "ugly American."
So, while my old friend may question my "American-ness" because I'm living in a foreign country, the truth is that I'm more of an American than he'll ever be.
I am representing America on a foreign stage, displaying and conveying the kind of one-to-one American humanity and kindness the Chinese natives will never see from America's leaders on TV. When the news they watch is equating "American" with "trade war," their interactions with me remind them that the real America is made up of honest, friendly people who, political and cultural differences aside, are very much like themselves.
I am not just an American abroad. I am representing America abroad. I am doing my part to improve foreign relations, one person at a time. Admittedly, it's a small part, but it's still something.
And it's something to be proud of.
So while my now estranged friend may have challenged my standing as an American, I now have an even better understanding of how thoroughly baseless a claim that was.
Yes, I am an American, wherever I may be living. And regardless of what the political situation may be back in the States, I will always try my hardest to represent America in the best light that I can.
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