Bonding: On Being an American Minority Abroad

There are two other people in my program who came to Stockholm from the engineering school at UT. One guy is East Asian, the other Indian, and they are both electrical engineering (EE – pronounced ‘double E’) majors. Being a EE is enough to ensure that back home, the three of us probably would have never met. EE is universally understood to be the most difficult of all the engineering majors at UT, and the students who study it are a special group. They’re incredibly intelligent, very hard working, focused, maybe a teeny bit odd, and honestly don’t associate with non-EEs very much. But our first week here abroad we bonded instantly, if for no other reason than because as Americans (honestly as Texans), we understand each other fundamentally in a way that other students do not. We are comfortable with each other, and when the world around us is foreign, it is nice to have people with shared American background and experiences with whom to bond. However last week I invited my UT friends over to dinner with some of the new friends I’ve made here abroad, and I realized that maybe our bond isn’t built simply on being Americans, but specifically, on being minorities in America.

The evening was trying, to say the least. And it wasn’t because of any overt prejudice on the part of my white friends who, being international students, fundamentally don’t understand the way race relations work in America. If they said or say anything offensive I know that it is from a place of ignorance, not malice, and ignorance can be remedied if people are willing to learn (which they are). No, the issue was with my friends from home, and the self-hatred they oozed from every pore. Every other sentence they said had to do with a racial stereotype, a racist occurrence or anecdote, an insensitive joke. At one point my Asian friend told us the story of how some ‘friend’ of his from back home tells the difference between Chinese people and Japanese people…and then proceeded to place his hands at the corners of his eyes, and slant them first upward, then downward. It was horrifying to watch. Not just because it was an incredibly racist joke, and not funny in any way, but because I know how exhausting it was to tap dance for white people, to feel that he had to put on a show, that the only way the people in the room would accept him was if he proved his inferiority to them. I know how it feels to lowkey hate yourself, to break and bend and mold yourself into something you’re not to “fit-in” with white people, even if only as a source of entertainment. They were self-deprecating to the point of pain. I watched as they belittled themselves more and more, trying way too hard to impress people who didn’t ask for their dignity, who didn’t need constant reminders of their differences and imagined superiority to be friends with them.

Everyone was uncomfortable, and they legitimately could not tell. They were just doing what they had always done, no doubt what they have done in the states their entire lives. I always imagine that black people in America are the only ones really suffering, and forget that every minority group in America has been discriminated against to some degree at some point in time. We all have our internalized pain, our cultural proclivities that others find strange and thus make no effort to understand. We are all trying to adapt, to thrive in this melting pot of a place, full of people of different races and ethnic backgrounds…that none of the white people wanted there. And this sentiment among white people hasn’t changed that much. It’s actually really interesting to hear the views some of my international friends have regarding immigration. People of color (POC) are fine….as long as they stay in their respective countries. This is potentially problematic when it comes to refugees, people fleeing from civil wars and victims of legitimate tragedies, but I hold my tongue because international politics is something I admittedly know very little about, and because I understand that newness, that difference, is alarming to most people. Any people.

In the states however, there is no choice to just stay with the people most like you (although Lord knows we try). We have to mix, to interact with each other at some point or another in our lives, and as a collective nation…we just aren’t very good at it. The reason all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria, why POC aren’t allowed into white fraternities and sororities, why the brown and Asian communities are some of the tightest I have every seen, why I feel at home here in Sweden around people I would ordinarily have nothing in common with, is the same. People gravitate to others that are similar to them, that understand them, and that they are comfortable with. And it is easier to avoid each other than it is to legitimately try and understand one another.

I think that difference is beautiful. I think that it’s important to have friends of different backgrounds, and to recognize that a world exists outside of our comfort zone. One of the best things about my experience abroad so far is that I am learning how to positively interact with people that are radically different than me. To be totally honest, I haven’t tried to really befriend a white person in nearly 2 years, so this was a huge adjustment for me (and before you judge, think about how many black friends you have, or even if society forces you to think about things like “why aren’t you friends with more black kids?” “why do you only hang out with white people?”*inward eye roll*). I love that I am learning how to discuss differences in a way that still affirms everyone’s validity. The issue however, at least in America, is that when we do leave our comfort zones and come together, it comes with history. And the history of America (possibly the entire world really) is white dominion over everyone else. Period. To be unaware of that history, to ignore it, or pretend that it has no bearing on the present, is to also make no effort to subvert or overcome it. And if we don’t recognize and address the negative impacts that the past has on the present, if we aren’t honest with ourselves and with each other about the way we view our differences, then we end up at a dinner party in 2016, half a world away, hurting ourselves and denying our culture to make other people (white people) feel comfortable.

 

 

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