Beijing! Washington!

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Posted on September 19, 2012

The most interesting conversations I have had about race in America have been with foreigners.

When I walked across the southern border of my homeland into Nogales, Mexico, joining commuters and medical tourists, I found myself wandering down a dusty street of entrepreneurs hawking various wares.

One fellow was shouting, “Beijing! Beijing! Beijing!” to attract my attention.

At first, I didn’t respond. That wasn’t because I took any offense or even was making any deliberate effort to ignore him. I just hadn’t noticed him. I’m not from Beijing and his shouts simply didn’t register.

When I did become aware he was trying to attract my attention, I went over and explained, in a matter of fact manner, that I was from Washington, D.C. Although I grew up in Detroit, the Motor City, and consider that where I am really from, I’ve lived most of my adult life in the nation’s capitol.

The proprietor of the store looked at me as if to say I couldn’t be serious and just laughed.

Then he said, “Do you think if I was born on the other side, I’d be an American?”

As I walked away, with similar good humor, he could not stop roaring with amusement.

He called after me, “Washington! Washington! Washington!”

Some time later, I took a family trip with my wife. We went to Japan, where her father was born and where her mother’s parents had emigrated from — yes, it’s a mixed marriage, as my ancestry is Chinese.

Because our grand-nieces were hungry for hamburgers after two weeks, we took them on our last night to the Tokyo outlet of an American restaurant chain. It was priced as a high-end establishment in the States would be, which was not at all surprising given how popular Western brands are — you could buy used jeans and athletic shoes in the same district, at premium prices.

While waiting for a table, I chatted with two bouncers for the nightclub that was next door. They were both Nigerian and had married Japanese women. One of them showed me photos of his newborn with the universal pride of a parent. As we shared our backgrounds, they were puzzled by my claim that we were American tourists.

According to them, the grand-nieces, teen-age girls who would be yonsei (fourth-generation) on their mother’s side and French and German on their father’s side, were half-Japanese and half-American. Their maternal lineage counted as Japanese, not American.

“Why deny your heritage?” was their question, the same that I’ve heard from my own parents.

The implicit claim of the convivial foreigners with whom I engaged, the Mexican a few miles from Arizona, and the Nigerians in Japan, was the same. They were saying, essentially, that I believed in a myth.

I don’t disagree with them. I am convinced by a myth. It is our ideal that anyone who comes to the New World can become an equal member of our society.

Their sense of their identity is shaped by their circumstances. Mine is no different.

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