When I was in Taiwan, I found that this was the most complicated thing to explain to people. In the beginning, I would always say that I am American because I did not know how to say “Ghanaian.” Also, I didn’t think it was too pressing to learn how to say it. I figured, “I’ll just say I’m American, no big deal.”
Ha! That became a joke real quick.
I remember the very first time that I told a taxi cab driver that I was American. He asked me where I was from. The absolute look of confusion that he gave me in the rearview mirror was something! Heck, even more ‘something’ was the confused look that I gave him right back… In that moment, I had completely forgotten that there are perceptions of what it means to be American that are very different than what I was used to. On another occasion, I was with some of my American and Taiwanese friends. The taxi cab driver asked my Taiwanese friend if I was from Africa. By this time, I was long used to being perceived as African.
I remember asking Wei Shen, my Chinese language tutor, how to say that I am Ghanaian so that I could start explaining myself better to people. From the taxi driver to the unexpected conversations that I would have on the street on several of my “get lost in Taiwan” moments…the question would always come up about where I came from. When I told most people that I was American, I received many confused looks. Practically EVERYONE thought I was from Africa and that I had nothing to do with America. Period!
I remember, at the mango stand in Taiwan, (because that was practically my home – haha! 我爱芒果！”I love mango!” Ah…don’t get me started on that, this blog will never end)… a woman there who I got to know… For about a month, she very quiet but very kind towards me. I would say 早！你好！(“Good Morning! How are you!”) She would nod or reply back with a “hello!” After about a month of seeing me at the mango stand every single evening to stock up on several packages of sliced mango, she finally asked me if there is no mango where I am from. I remember that made me laugh because I was soon becoming known as the mango addict among my classmates at the university. I said to her “我是美國人. 美國的芒果太貴了! 還台灣的芒果比美國的芒果很好吃! 台灣的芒果比中國的芒果很便宜。在美國我不喜歡吃芒果可是在台灣我常常愛吃芒果.” (“I’m from America. Mango in America is extremely expensive! Taiwan’s mango compared to American mango is extremely delicious. Mango in Taiwan compared to mango in America is very cheap! In America, I do not like to eat mango but in Taiwan, I love to eat it often.”)
As you can see…there is a lot to ‘remember’…and these situations are really just a few of the many instances that I found myself in. There is a perception that Americans are only white and not everyone is truly aware of how much of a melting pot America really is. I found that the best conversations with locals came from that question of where I am from and what I am in Taiwan to do. Many of the people were really just extremely curious and were interested in hearing about America and the types of people there.
I got better at explaining. In the beginning, I struggled… not because I didn’t know what to say it, but because I struggled with HOW to say it and learning to listen to people speak at a certain speed. Just because I understand how something works doesn’t mean I can articulate that to someone else…and in a different language at that!
“我妈妈，爸爸都是 加纳人。我弟弟，妹妹，和我都是美国人。。。可是因为我的妈妈爸爸都是 加纳人，他们听说我们也是加纳 和美国人.” (My mother and father are both from Ghana. My little brother, sister, and myself are both American…but because my parents are both Ghanaian, they told us we are also Ghanaian and American.”
I found that that explanation worked the best. The “ohhhhh!!!” look crossed some faces. I was so proud of myself, haha! Anything is better than the look of confusion.
Anyway, it’s going to be fun to be in this position again. A good amount of people spoke English in Taiwan but China will be significantly different. I will have to be 100% reliant on speaking the language so it should be an experience to remember, that’s for sure.
There are other people who face my same situation… Indian American, Korean American etc etc. The good thing about going to study Chinese language is that I can get better and better at throwing out more details about the complexities of identifying as both Ghanaian and American. Whew! Can’t wait to figure out how to say “first- generation American.”
It’s a great situation to be in. Although I am there to develop long-term linguistic and cultural competencies, people are also going to learn from me JUST by talking to me. When I really think about that fact, it’s fascinating!
At the end of the day, I feel that I should always keep in mind … I will likely never become perfect at explaining myself to people. It’s always going to be complex and challenging to try and bridge that gap between two different cultures to understand one another. The reality that I find, though, is that even though many people are different, we connect because we have similarities. This perspective helps me to think about the challenge of explaining myself to people in a more open way rather than to focus on how different I would be to other people and likewise.