Watching My Back: Part One

“Watching My Back” is a re-edited four-part presentation of my first written assignment for a Communications course that I took earlier this year. The paper’s focus demanded that the author explain his or her culture. Being longer in the tooth than most of my fellow classmates, I knew that not only this was an impossible task, but also one possibly designed to allow us new car driver’s to get a feel for the wheel, the accelerator, the mirrors, the gearshift, and the break.

Accordingly, otherwise unknown textbook concepts and terms were incorporated within the few written pages. For reader comfort I dropped a number of in-text citations that mostly alluded to the text, “Experiencing Intercultural Communication,” authored by Judith N. Martin and Thomas K. Nakayama. However, I will acknowledge authorship of specific social concepts either in the foreward or in the story’s body.

For privacy, I do not use real names within the mentioned conversation group activities.

Right on the heels of another latecomer to the ESL conversation group, I felt less awkward entering the room and taking my usual seat ––as quickly and quietly as possible–– at the circle of tables. Being that these fairly casual gatherings take place within one of the library’s conference rooms, there is a broad respect for bookworm quiet. I rustled and dug into my backpack; conscious of the slight noise I made while one of the regulars ––Hae-won–– told us her two truths and one lie. That damn dollar reporter’s pad was missing and I really wanted to take notes.

Mabel, that day’s volunteer ESL leader, looked around the room with a generous grin, and asked us, “so, which one was the lie?” In my mind I made note of two things: one was Hae-won’s suspected lie (a heavily detailed whopper in which she claimed to be a real estate millionaire in her South Korean hometown), and the other was how fruitful this initially strange exercise could turn out––at least for me. After Hae-won, Esther asked me to think about telling two truths about myself, and one lie. During that time, two other participants took their turns and I quietly pondered how to go for the jugular.

Here was the perfect opportunity to confront, if not challenge, that one statement that I invariably hear from immigrants: one that I initially took as a compliment almost twenty-years ago, but recently took a second meaning to heart. The phrase, “you don’t look American,” are usually the first words that greet me, accompanied by a surprised smile and flashes of white round warming eyes. Whether from a friend from South Africa, Eritreans in a Washington D.C. park, or ESL students from Japan or the Ukraine, the remark, or its unspoken rapprochement in an attempt to place my features, momentarily strips me of my national identity. Lately though, I began to wonder if some of those people were really saying, ‘you don’t seem American.’

That is to say, I do not fit some stereotypical caricature that, throughout their lives overseas, had been broadcasted on their televisions, or unspooled in the fool’s gold of imported Hollywood films. Those words probably went beyond observing my lack of belly-fat. Perhaps I lacked an inner city thingy, a certain way of walking, gesturing, or I betrayed the family custom of pensively pausing before I speak. Or perhaps in that speech, their foreign-born ears pick apart the elocution; the fingers of their minds proceed to pin the voice to another land on the map of the world.

Putting my suspicions to the test, I was given the opportunity now to tell a couple of unique truths and a dull old lie to boot. I was given the tools to reveal what separated me: an individual, multidimensional being, from the America in the minds of strangers.

There is a tragicomic irony within the pages of Ralph Ellison’s novel, “Invisible Man.” It is a sometime satiric narrative that reveals the willingness in American society to systematically belittle and disenfranchise the American-Negro (a term with respect to the time of the novel’s inception). As the title reflects the lack of dignity given to Americans of African-descent by upholding a segregated society,’ there is also an implicit tale that betrays the protagonist ––and the minority identity–– as possessing at least three identities.

Like Russian nesting dolls, there is the core identity: the ‘invisible man’ or the sense of one’s selfhood given at birth. Wrapped around the self is a one-size-fits-all body of the African-American identity: an ethnic or ‘racial’ designation (I think of the phrase ‘Black Community’) rationalized by shared physical traits and common creeds and behavior. The last encasement is the grand figure of the U.S. American character: a national identity patinated by the gloss of cherry tree myths, a cinemascope-aged Manhattan skyline, and the yellowed chronicles of social rights movements known and echoed worldwide. When I think of ‘not looking American,’ I wonder about the eyes cast upon all of that which is open to the world and the hidden tchotchke sitting at the core.