A Little American Mythology

A Chinese student who shares his ideas about Americans makes me realize that, maybe, I've been telling myself myths about this country. ( photo by Jorc Navarro)

Last Saturday, my husband John and I welcomed a couple of Chinese students into our home after dinner. Originally, we just talked turkey — or rather, the fact that we invited them over to our place for Thanksgiving. But when the topic came up, John and I had other turkeys in mind, such as the discrimination we faced barely a day before.

“You two should be careful around here,” I warned the two young Chinese men lounging on our sofa. “Americans aren’t always what they seem to be.” Okay, to be sure, I said these words when the incident — which kicked my husband and I virtually in the stomach — still simmered freshly in my mind. I know a lot of good Americans live in this world. But I suspected these students still carried a far too wholesome “Family Album USA” perspective of this country.

One of the Chinese guys looked genuinely puzzled. “I consider Americans to be very straightforward.”

“Not really,” my husband chimed in. “People don’t always say what they mean.” I knew John wanted to say much more, the way he would later with me — how difficult it was for him, at times, to win the trust of white people in this country. But he left it there.

“But Americans seem so simple and uncomplicated,” the Chinese student responded.

Simple? Uncomplicated? In light of what we just experienced, nothing could be further from the truth.

But, surely, didn’t I once hold simplistic views about China once upon a time? Didn’t I once mythologize that country and its people, until time, experiences and even learning the language created a new China in my mind? And even though I’m much more educated about China, I still have a lot to learn.

I guess I have a lot to learn, though, about my own country too. Once discrimination got dumped on my doorstep, in a form I never expected, I feel different about living here. Even as I write this entry, I’m creating new stories about the United States of America — and realizing that some of the old stories I clung to were really just mythology after all.

Have you ever mythologized another place or country? Or have your friends? How did you — or how did they — get it right or get it wrong?

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15 Replies to “A Little American Mythology”

  1. Growing up in Russia, my parents watched unpleasant movies about America, such as ones where there’s violence everywhere and dead bodies. (I think one of them was TV show Dallas…) when they thought they would move to America, they expected it to be like in the movies, but it wasn’t.

    I expected Dallas, Texas to be just like Russia in terms of weather, language, etc. but it really disappointed me. (To this day I cannot stand Texas summers…and I’ve lived in Texas since 1994.)

    I’m really curious to ask what kind of discrimination happened with you and your husband in America. Sorry if the question is too nosy and stuff. Hope you’re not offended by it.

  2. I think mythologizing a place or country is the norm for us humans. Unless one has personal experience of a place or country, one’s perception and expectation of it cannot be anything else but gleaned from reading, movies, tv and what others say. And these notoriously do not say the whole thing or are necessarily often skewed one way or another. And even with the place or country we are familiar with, as in your case with America, we can often find that we may be wrong and that things that we have all along thought to be such and such turn out to be just a myth after all!

  3. I didn’t realize I was living in a bubble with my rainbow family so to speak (my family members are from all over the world with different bloodlines). I live in a very liberal place and I really thought America was like that. Go figure. 😀 I am dreadfully sorry for whatever happened.

    I’ve always wanted to talk about what happened to me with what I went through in cosmeotlogy classes and restaurants. It made me realize what I thought was probably truly Mythology, after all. Maybe someday.

  4. “One of the Chinese guys looked genuinely puzzled. “I consider Americans to be very straightforward.””

    The difference between these two students and myself was that I was a student of US history and knew exactly what to expect when I moved into Arlington, VA back in 1979…it was still the HQ of the American Nazi Party…the YMCA near my home was freqented by Nazis particularly women and girls affiliated with the Nazis. The Klan marched near Bailey’s Cross Roads near the Red Barn restaurant..and farther down south you went, the worse it became. You never went to Forsythe county Georgia….definitely did not go to parts of Idaho…Aryan Nations and Richard Butler were frequenting the Northern part of the state. And yes, I never applied to schools in the south..knew plenty of racism out there and did not want to put up with it. I did not apply to schools in Idaho either. Ended up in Indiana…which was pretty racist at that time..so racist that they will end up harrassing an Singaporean Indian couple…the woman was very pale and the guy was dark…they thought they were an interracial couples…they left a dead rat at the doorstep..their son got beaten up in school…they were literally run out of town and they went back to Singapore, and the only place they have come back to is Hawaii. Sadly a similar story was repeated in Southern Virginia nearly twenty years later…so if we know the history we will know places to avoid!

  5. When I first landed in US, someone told me that Americans are the same as people from other country. I was puzzled at the time, now I believe it is true. There is a small twist for that statement: Americans are more diverse than other country. When you ran into the worst outlier type of people, you can be in trouble, but it is a good place to live most of the time.
    Bias comes with different forms and different degrees. The truth is people don’t like differences without awareness and understanding. I have experienced all types of bias in my life, some are minor irritations and some really hurt. But I do have my own bias as well, to be honest. But I know what is politically correct so I generally walk away from the discussion that I don’t like. Having put myself in other people’s shoes, I just make peace with minor irritations and develop thick skin.
    I can’t speak for other places, but NY area is a better place for people with
    different background. That is my mythology.

  6. David, don’t forget there was an “chinese exclusive act” in US history. My thinking is: we cannot live in the past; we fight for better future. Things are getting better, running away is showing weakness. Togather we can change things for the better, starting by exercising your right to vote.

  7. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882..actually was severed on Chinese women…they were not allowed to come into the country. But, Karma is a bitch…what goes around comes around..we dont have to dwell in the past. Many of you would be familiar with the Pied Piper of Hamlin..he rids the town of Hamlin, Germany of the mice, but they refuse to pay him..and he takes the children. Similarly, the Chinese Exclusion Act literally despised Chinese women and excluded them from this country…they could not even enter by marrying a Chinese man…guess what, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin eight centuries before her..they are playing the music and the descendants of the racist white men who passed the Chinese Exclusion Act are following them, and marry them in large numbers and contributing to the browning of America! As I said, what goes around comes around!

  8. Lest me remind you, Mrs. Yu, that you exemplify how WONDERFUL many Americans still are, and all hope is not lost (far from it) for this great country.

  9. Before I came to the U.S., I must say that my perception of Americans came from TV shows such as “Three’s Company”, “Hotel”, and “Dallas” – when I arrived the U.S., it took awhile for me to adjust to the above shows in different skin colors in real life. Overall, I must say, the reality and my fantasy of America didn’t have too much gap. People are friendly for the most part and helpful.

  10. I’ve been to other countries before and know people who have lived there for decades. It’s true that the US, in general, is nicer in several respects, even compared to other Western countries like Canada or the UK. Of course it has it’s flaws, and the Americans are just like everyone else. In fact, I can reverse that and say if people around the world, including China, had similar conditions to the US, it would more or less have some similar “niceness” too.

    My guess is that Americans are “nice” because one, we do have a very strong religious influence ingrained in our country. Like even if you became atheist, immigrated from a non-Christian society, or such, you can still feel its impact. For better or worst, I think this has done something to the average American psyche.

  11. I also wanted to say that another reason why Americans appear to be “nicer” is that other than the religious influence, it is also a young country. It’s a few centuries old, but it’s not the same as the other nations where they have thousands’ years of history. So, even if Americans, in general, don’t think too far or don’t care too much about Ancient baggage, it can also be a good thing.

    Young countries do still have this somewhat innocent and energetic spark inside them. Sometimes.

  12. My favorite American TV show in Korea before I moved here was the Dukes of Hazzard…So I viewed Americans as backward, country folks. As I grew up here, I learned that this is a very complicated and diverse place where so many different cultures mixes…I love it!

    I would tell foreigners that not all of the USA is like LA or NY. There is a big chunk of the country where the population is still pretty homogeneous, so they don’t view diversity as well as.

  13. I’m Native American (I say that a lot but many people think that our culture is completely gone but it’s not) and I have dealt with all types of prejudice both with other Natives and with various other ethnicities and cultures. Among Natives, I was mostly called an “apple” because even though I’m “red” on the outside, I’m white on the inside. It never bothered me because for a long time I felt a prejudice toward the people on my reservation for various things. I once lived in a very Caucasion area and would be teased about being Native but I was also teased about my bad teeth (which are mostly fixed now) and things like that too. Then I moved and at the time I didn’t realize it but was descrimitated against for being poor. Even today, I still am but I do my best to hold a good attitude and almost always, it shines through and people get to know and like me. When it’s important. I don’t have the time and patients to try to be a people pleaser.

    That being said, I sincerely do my best to keep an open mind about things and realize that while all things are different, they are also quite the same. Similar, anyway. But, as hard as I try, the more I read about Chinese culture, the more nervous I feel should I ever meet my boyfriends family and eventually, marry him. I’m developing a complex that very few people (that matter as far as our relationship goes) will like me. Which is scary because mostly that makes me feel that our relationship is in his hands because I feel set that I want to be with him and marry him someday and my family is perfectly fine with our relationship and potential marriage but he can easily say, “No. I’m sorry, my family doesn’t want to be together.”
    I’m not the type of person to chase someone, no matter how much I love that person. But reading all these stories and how to deal with the situations makes me feel more scared than comforted but it’s good stuff to know.

    So I guess, right now, I’m mythologizing** China probably in a very bad manner.

  14. It is natural people who have been abroad view their own countries with a new sense of reality. It is not because your country has become worse. There are things you did not care as much before. There is no reason to blow everything out of proportion either. America beats countries like China in most aspects. That is just how it has become.
    Every person’s experience can be very different, so is the perception based on that experience.

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