A few years back, I was searching for essay contests to enter (they were for extra credit; don’t judge), and I stumbled on one that asked me to describe the experience of being a multicultural teen living in the United States today. I just laughed a little, thinking that if whoever was asking didn’t already know, then there was nothing more I could do for them. It was a can of worms I didn’t want to open. To be fair, I did give it a half-hearted shot for the sake of the free points, but it was just nonsense. I really felt like everybody understood, because we live in America, for goodness sakes! And I didn’t need to explain it to the close-minded people who didn’t get it.
Fast forward to today–through the hours excitedly and intensely poring through news and politics, through realizations of who I am and what this crazy world is,, through needing to grow up and meeting that need (well, sorta).
Fast forward through all that, and I realize now, that their term “multicultural” was a PC euphemism for “minority,” and being a minority was not an experience the majority shared. I also realize that maybe the reason I was so upset about the question before was because I thought minority-ness” was just about prejudices and nothing more. That’s not true. So are some hard truths and some of the fairly comedic facts of minority-ness:
1. When you have a “minority name,” roll calls of any sort are a particular kind of torture… especially for the speaker. First comes the pregnant pause and the “oh, crap” expression (sometimes followed by “why couldn’t these parents just friggin name him Bob, gosh darn it). Then the “I’m so sorry beforehand for butchering your name.” Next the stuttering and “uh” with that look of concentration and “I haven’t felt this silly sounding out a word since kindergarten” painted all across their face. After they finally choke that out, they ask you like 12 different times how it’s actually pronounced and if they’re saying it correctly now (but they don’t really care). And the whole time they’re suffering through that, you’re just cringing. Your name in their mouth just sounds like a square peg in a round hole, and that’s not a pleasant sensation. I have honest to goodness gotten to the point that I know who comes before me on the attendance list and when I see that “oh, crap” face, I go “here!” really loudly so they (and I) don’t have to suffer through that.
2. Maintaining your culture outside its natural habitat is expensive. The few people who sell the foods of your heritage, the clothes of your native country, and the non-English movies and songs you crave can charge whatever they want (capitalism at its finest). They can overprice the crap out of anything and everything because if you want it, you don’t really have a whole lot of options and you’re just gonna have to settle for the price if you want it that badly. For instance, my family and I have made the decision to only eat halal meat… unfortunately there aren’t a whole lot of vendors in this area that sell halal meat. So, without having to compete against Walmart and Shop N Save, they can charge whatever ludicrously high price they want because we don’t really have any other option.
3. Even without the price, it just is difficult in general not to conform. All PC rainbows and unicorns and melting pot BS aside, there is a very distinct American culture, and it’s not some utopian blend of every culture. We may have once been proud of being a nation of immigrants, but that’s not really American culture today.
It’s not wearing saris or sombreros; it’s blue jeans and a ball cap. And that’s why when you look down the street and see everybody wearing those blue jeans and ball caps, you’ll wear them too. Because you want to fit in. You’ll deny it and spew something about it being more comfortable or practical, but in the end you just want to feel like everybody else.
That need fades slightly after childhood, but past that. you’ve already established your style and daily life. and you don’t want to change it. So you just stick with the conformity. Because fighting it is a lot more effort than you can really afford to give.
4. When you leave home for any length of time, you begin to crave and lust for (like a junkie, withdrawals and all) for your native tongue and spices. If you don’t live in a community of people with similar heritages, your family is your only pipeline to the customs and traditions of your culture. So being away from them from any length of time means you come home begging your mommy to cook you some comfort food and not speak English (thank goodness I won’t be going too far away for college next year and come back on the weekends). Your family is your community, and people don’t get it because “but, you can get Italian just down the street,”
5. Except when people try to capitalize on your culture, it gets diluted and American-ized into something indistinguishable. 100% guarantee, the Mexican/Italian/Greek/Chinese food commercially available is not the real stuff. It’s a slightly less spicy, slightly more sketchy, and very not right. So that “Italian just down the street” is very much not a substitute for home cooking.
6. Politicians have a never-ending quest for the majority vote… which often leads minority-ness out in the cold. Democracy means politicians compete for the majority vote and target their every action to them. That’s why Obama pursuing the African- American vote made such a big splash; it really wasn’t something typically associated with the presidential playbook.
Foreign policy can be an especially sore spot. You tend to pay particular attention to what the candidates say they’re planning on doing in your country and whether or not they distinguish between the innocent people and the often power-hungry government—and that can definitely be a major selling point.
I generally favor the politician who votes to end the war overseas and doesn’t want to “police the world” (which is code for “strong-arm and bully until they accept the American way”), because that’s a big deal for me. Every politician focuses on making sure the economy is stable and the people are happy, but foreign policy often falls through the cracks, because many times, the majority doesn’t focus on it as much as the minority.
7. When you are a member of a minority, you are the minority. Your every action is often a direct reflection upon the groups to which you belong.The way you dress, the way you speak, the way you carry yourself through every situation—especially if it’s not absolutely impeccably—becomes the next thing people incorporate into their schema for your group.
My parents tried explaining this to me since… well, forever… that the way I behave affects the way that people think of whatever group I am a part of, regardless of whether that’s my religion, my race, or my school. I thought that was wholly unfair, so I ignored it… well, I still think it’s unfair, but I do realize now that I can’t ignore it. I hate that I have to guard my every move when I’m around strangers in case something I do becomes something Muslims do—that as a minority I have to represent my entire minority. Any blunder I make in my typical human fashion ought not to be attributed to my minority-ness, but it is. And while I don’t want to give up and embrace it as an unfortunate and immutable fact of life, it is a fact of life for many people today, immutable though it may not be.
But despite all that, some of the most patriotic people in America are members of minorities.They gave up their old lives to immigrate here, because they had faith it would be better. Even if America isn’t perfect, who is? People suffering from minority-ness worked to become American citizen because they weren’t just born into it; they created the rhetoric everyone else is now spewing, and they meant it when they said it, rather than just mindlessly repeating.
So, being “multicultural” is great and funny and sad and unfortunate all at the same time.