Mutts like me

Many African-Americans never thought they’d see the day when a black man became C-in-C of the U.S. of A. I didn’t think we’d ever have a president who was a mutt like me.

Most African-Americans probably have traces of white in them. Most White-Americans have traces of who-knows-what-was-in-the-kitchen-sink in them. Few Americans are not mutts. I’m one of the few in being all-Chinese.

But Obama is not fully the product of what I think of as the historic stereotype of African-Americans, where their ancestors were brought to America as slaves at least five generations and over 100 years ago. African-Americans have been here ever since. Like all non-white people, African- Americans have been disenfranchised, but unlike Asians and Latinos, the one thing that is omitted from their collective experience is . . . illegal immigration. No one would ever doubt their American citizenship. Only recently has there been more immigrants from Africa (Somalis, Nigerians, Kenyans, etc), among them. But it seems like for a long time there were no people coming here from Africa, unlike Asia, Latin America and Europe which has been replenishing America with constant streams of new immigrants in the past century, with and without papers.

Like Obama, I am also an outlier inconsistent with the Chinese-American historical stereotype (ancestors working railroads/gold mines; paper sons; Chinese restaurant owners who work hard and raise first-generation sons to go to Harvard). I once met a Chinese-American from Minnesota. When I told her my grandparents lived in the Twin Cities; without skipping a beat she asked “What restaurant did they own?” For a moment, I wished he hadn’t been a scientist at 3M. (But so far, none of his kids or grandkids made it to Ivy League.)

So when Obama called himself a ‘mutt’, I don’t think he meant it simply as a matter of race, but also of his life history. And that’s what I can really relate to. I feel like my American identity as based on my life-history, is also that of a mutt.

Obama’s dad was born outside the US
My parents were both born outside the US

Obama was born in Hawaii. How many black people are born in Hawaii?!
I was born in North Carolina. How many Chinese people are born in North Carolina?!

When he was young his parents split up, and he moved with his mom to Jakarta
When I was young, my parents split up, and I moved with my dad to Bangkok

Obama’s childhood was spent in a foreign country Indonesia (age 3- 7)
My childhood was spent in a foreign country Thailand (ages 6- 14)

Obama has a half-sister who’s half Indonesian.
I have step-siblings who are half Cambodian.

OK, these are very microscopic common denominators between myself and the President-elect.
(Maybe the bigger common denominator between us is Tiger Woods!) But I seriously believe that the experience of growing up outside America is a major factor in giving him (and me) a fluid understanding for the greater world outside America. It’s deeper than the awareness gained from doing a college-semester abroad or as an expat in a foreign land, where you gain exposure to other cultures, but you don’t really fully relate or immerse. I think that as an adult, your ways are already set, and it’s harder open up to new ideas. Whereas when you’re a kid, you’re more of an open slate. It’s easier to learn languages, it’s easier to immerse yourself in the environment and absorb those values.

I don’t know, maybe I’m giving Obama too much credit. After all, some people spend their childhood abroad but those foreign influences are erased or forgotten from themselves when they are adults living the rest of their lives in their home country. But I’d like to think that for him, like me, a childhood spent abroad makes for an indelible constant reminder that there’s there’s many other ways lives are lived, not just the ‘American’ way of life. It sounds funny to say that about someone who’s number one responsibility and concern is America, but ladies and gentlemen, America is now the world, and the world is now America.

I used to hate it when people asked me “where are you from?”, and it wasn’t because I thought they were implying I wasn’t ‘American.’ It was because I couldn’t really give a sound-bite answer that they could ‘get’ whom I was in one label. It takes too long to explain me, Chinese born in the US who grew up in Thailand. It’s TMI for most people to comprehend. But I’ve been finding that there’s more and more cultural mutts like me, especially in California. And now I’m proud that we hit the long shot jackpot by landing one in the White House.


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