Aliza Cruz spoke this past weekend at the Raven Narratives and I had the pleasure of hearing her rehearse just a few hours before the event. She is a striking woman with dark hair and an enormous smile. As she shared her story, she gesticulated wildly with her hands, stomped with her feet, and felt every word she said viscerally. I tell her powerful story here, in her own words.
I’m a military brat who grew up on an American naval base an hour south of Tokyo. Once, my older brother accidentally abandoned me off-base. My parents let us venture off downtown, and everything went well until, on our way back, we stumbled into a huge Japanese protest outside the base. As an 8-year-old, having a crowd of Japanese people screaming “Yankee go home!” was disconcerting. I asked my brother what a Yankee was, and he told me that we were Yankees, because we were American. Confused and curious, I paused to watch the protest; to look at the angry, scary faces of the men, women, and children milling around in front of the gate, at their rhythmic stomping and the picket signs bouncing up and down. When I turned around, my brother wasn’t there.
He eventually came back to get me, but I sat right outside the gate with my arms wrapped around my knees for a while. I don’t look Japanese, but I am an Asian, and I didn’t have an ID. The gate guard was in his early 20s, probably newly enlisted, and even though I spoke perfect English, he couldn’t let me on base. I remember looking past the gate and thinking, “I should be in there! I’m a Yankee!”
Ten years later, I’m 18. It’s the end of my freshman year at George Washington University. I had just gotten back from my calculus class, and this boy from Oklahoma was complaining about our professor’s Indian accent. I mean, I get it. Calculus is hard enough without being unable to understand what your teacher is saying. We’re sitting on these gross armchairs – five college freshmen, all of us majoring in science or engineering – and the conversation turns to the fact that many of our professors hail from somewhere in Asia and have heavy accents. This is when I learned that in some contexts, white American and non-white American are not the same thing.
The boy says, “If we let you come here, you damn well better learn to speak right. It’s bullshit that I have to pay money to learn from someone who can’t even speak English. They should hire American professors.” I remember thinking that his “you” encapsulated my mother, who has a great grasp of the English language, but does speak with a heavy Filipino accent. I also remember not feeling like he was referring to me, because I speak with a Californian accent. But did an Indian accent really mean my professor wasn’t American? Or was this boy casually expressing racist views and asking the question, “Why don’t they hire more people that look and sound like me?”
On the Sunday after the 2016 presidential election, I’m at south City Market, and it’s late in the afternoon. I just want to go home and make dinner. As I’m leaving, I pull out my phone to text my younger brother and sister about the awesome dinner I’m about to make. Because I was looking at my phone and not paying attention to my surroundings, I accidentally shoulder-checked a man who was on his way in. The man was wearing a cowboy hat, a shiny belt buckle, and boots. He looks at me, with really hard eyes, and says, “Watch it, rice nigger.”
For the next two months, I did not want to go to south City Market by myself. One afternoon in early December, I drove to City Market and sat in the parking lot, talking myself into going inside. I drove home instead.
My understanding of what it means to be American has gone through several evolutions. My feelings of patriotism and my values come from multiple generations of my family having served in the military. However, I’m having experiences that line me up with a sub-par version of being American. I am the child of immigrants. Being first generation means that, if my father wasn’t in the service, I could be living in a third world country right now, where so many of my relatives are. My skin color makes me stand out and other people question my being an American. As a result I have to continually process my status as one, because people can’t look at me and know that I am.
Being an American isn’t about reciting a pledge or raising a flag. It means that I embrace all of my identities, because they all tie into this beautiful idea that the United States is a place where everyone is accepted. And I trust in this, deeply. I trust that all of my identities are accepted, loved, and valued here. And in those identities, which used to just be as an American woman, but now include my identities as an Asian, a Filipina, and a first generation immigrant to this country, I value the sacrifices and the honor of being American perhaps even more than those who were born with the luxury of acceptance.
Cyle Talley wonders if there is anything to say after hearing a story like that. Feel free to email him at your leisure: firstname.lastname@example.org