나는 인도 사람이 아닙니다! 나는 단 한번도 인도에 가 본적이 없어요! 나는 뭄바이에 살아 본 적이 없다구요! 나의 가족 중 누구도 파텔이라는 이름은 없습니다! 난 인도인이 아니에요! 크리스토퍼 콜럼버스는 멍청이였습니다!
No, I have never been to India! I have never lived in Mumbai! none of my family is named Patel! Christopher Columbus was an idiot!
* * *
Something I’m extremely grateful to my mother and family for: they’ve never ingrained in me the notions that I’m “a minority” nor that I’m “a victim.” Many fellow young Native Americans’ attitudes have been a turn off for me due to their seemingly natural tendency to rail against The Man whenever a situation comes up involving Caucasian friends or working with Caucasian colleagues. And don’t get into these discussions with a young American Indian (and especially the elders) over drinks because, well, they’ll preach you their political “Us Against Them” sermon just as the booze starts settling in . . . quite ruining a good buzz.
HIM: Hey bro (to a white guy). Just because my skin’s red . . .
ME: *Sigh, and then face palm* . . . I knew I should have stayed in tonight.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always respectfully acknowledged the history of the atrocities carried out against the North American Indian tribes of the U.S. by its government. I sincerely regard those atrocious events of the past with appreciation just as I do with all the atrocities in world history: the Holocaust by the Nazis; China’s Cultural Revolution by Mao Zedong; the Killing Fields by the Khmer Rouge; present-day North Korea. It’s just difficult for me to connect with — you’ll have to excuse my apparently pretentious viewpoint — narrow-minded Native Americans.
I grew up off the Reservation for most of my life. I haven’t developed into the common mold of a Native American Hopi: I don’t have an accent (which many young people on the Reservation would probably tease me for, saying that I sound like a “White boy”); I don’t know the ethnic language; my posture is different (I tend to cross my legs and sit up straight); I watch what I eat, cutting out carbonated soft drinks, sweet snacks, and limiting greasy, fatty foods, and consciously consuming greater amounts of fruit and raw vegetables; my humor, cynical personality, and interests don’t click with that of other young Native Americans.’ I fancy reading The Economist, by far my favorite weekly news publication, I enjoy discussing the finer details of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and I consider the meticulous process of carrying out a Discounted Cash Flow valuation of a company’s operations with precision as an art rather than a science. The very latter are why I can say that I do not have a single Native American friend outside of my immediate and extended family.
Indeed, my best friend is a whitey. We connect deeply over minute details of music (4 hours elapse with ease as we take to pieces the lyrical journeys of the Wu-Tang Clan) and movies such as Casablanca, Dr. Strangelove, Good Fellas, and Pulp Fiction. It’s impossible to be profoundly immersed in conversation over lots of alcohol about such topics with other Native Americans my age; indeed, I’m genuinely afraid of drinking a lot of alcohol with some of them. And, I must say, I’m not too much afraid of many things.
Additionally, I’ve never considered myself as “a minority.” I’ve never felt as if I were being “victimized.” I’ve never thought I was entitled to anything. I’m not. I now realize that my mother and family have taught me all of this. Somehow they’ve taught me without explicitly telling me.
Yet despite my intolerance for my own ethnicity’s social shortcomings (from my apparently pretentious viewpoint), I’ve recently discovered a desire to identify myself proudly as an American Indian Hopi; living in Korea has made me identify more with my Native American heritage.
* * *
I’m a conversation and business English teacher for Korean college students and working professionals. My classes rotate monthly which means I have new students every month. My introduction to a new class goes something like this:
I’m originally from Arizona in the U.S. If you don’t know where Arizona is, it’s where the Grand Canyon is located, and it’s right next to California. I served in the military for four years and was actually based in Southern California for three of those years. I studied Finance in college and I worked for an investment company before deciding to teach English in Korea. I have a broad taste in music, I enjoy blogging, and I like long-distance running and am an avid snowboarder.
Never had I thought to state my ethnic background. However, some students began to ask if I were originally from America — the reason being, I guessed, that my skin color was throwing them off a bit?; some Koreans thought I was some sort of Asian (perhaps Thai or Mongolian) or Pacific-Islander (perhaps Filipino). Like other countries that have cultural stereotypes about other countries, Korea has many about the U.S. and Americans. One of them is that the U.S. is predominantly Caucasian. Of course Koreans know that the United States is a culturally diverse country. But for Korea, there’s still a tendency to envision America as a land of rich citizens who are mostly white. Hence their curiosity about my ethnicity.
So I began stating: “And if you’re wondering, my ethnicity is Native-American.” Though, this too caused confusion. On one occasion, when it came time to introduce herself to me while modeling my introduction, a student actually stated that she was “Native-Korean.” I chuckled and let her know she only needed to state, “I am Korean.”
After a couple more occasions of “I am Native-Korean,” I decided that I should clarify and so began stating: “And if you’re wondering, my ethnicity is American-Indian.” Though, this, once again, caused confusion.
HER: Teacher, (the student calls out to me while I’m writing my lesson plan on the board) when did your parents move to America?
ME: (I turn around from the board to face her) Sorry?
HER: When did your parents move to America? (She’s genuinely interested)
ME: Uhh, when did my parents move to . . . America? (the intonation in my voice rising)
HER: You said that you were American-Indian, right? So that means you were born in the U.S. So I guessed you are first-generation American-Indian. But I was wondering when your parents moved to America.
ME: Uh, yes, I am American-Indian. And my parents were born in the U.S.
HER: Oh. I thought you were first-generation American-Indian. But you are . . . second-generation?
After clearing things up, I could only feel amused by her innocence. But then my amusement slightly turned to irritation when another student asked if the crime rate was high in India.
HER: I heard the crime rate in Mumbai is really high. Is it dangerous place?
As silly and borderline racist as it sounds, I’ve had to resort to placing the tip of my index finger between my eyebrows while shaking my head vigorously and saying, “I’m NOT this Indian!” In wholehearted determination, I’ve then had to pretend to wail a . . . war cry? . . . with my hand over my mouth depicting a sham Hollywood imitation of a Plains Indian and say, “I’m THIS Indian!” How refined of me. But as is expected (albeit sadly), it gets the point across immediately with the pantomime of a response of “AAAAHHHHH” (mouth and eyes are wide open and they nod their head slowly and deeply). “I see. Okay, okay.”
Feeling violated by this ill theatrical explanation, I’ve recently brought Chris Columbus into the mix.
ME: You guys know who Christopher Columbus is, right? American-Indians don’t believe in Christopher Columbus. As far is American-Indians are concerned, he didn’t discover America.
After saying this a number of times, I’ve realized my perverted pride in being 100% North American Indian. Yet, for me, it’s strange to feel this type of pride. I’ve never had to explain my heritage to the point of justifying my ethnic existence. But it feels good.
This is who I am, and there’s quite a history behind my ancestry. So, y’know, I’d like assurance that you know that I’m not just an average “Joe the Plumber” American.
That’s how I feel now. So when that one cab driver thought I was Chinese, I just bit my tongue, stated 미국 사람이에요 (I am American), and smiled tightly. And when that guy in the gym thought I was Brazilian, I just held back, laughed, and ran an extra two kilometers to relieve the tension. And when I get a feeling that I may have to prove my American-ness in class to students who may not believe where I’m from (because many times Koreans have an expectation to have a Caucasian teacher since they tend to equate American or Westerner with a white person), I just play it cool and let the quality of my teaching take care of things.
And I hope I’ve corrected those Koreans’ misconceptions they may have had about American-Indians. This Hopi has never lived in a tee-pee or wigwam.