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If I were a refugee, I would be a refugee and wouldn’t have to worry about failing the nationality test.


In grade school they taught us it was the patriotic thing to do to place one’s hand over one’s heart when singing the Star Spangled Banner. And midday, after we had had our snacks, we would continue the singing with songs like America The Beautiful.

Why then, didn’t anyone ever drill it into us that although there exist those people raised by refugees, if they themselves were born within the 50 U.S. states, we do not call them refugees but American citizens? This, I am sure, was written on some very official scroll during some very official meeting. And if you go to the capital and ask for it, perhaps you can view it, maybe even touch it.

So then, because we learned very well (or for some of us, not so well) our times tables and how to do long division but missed out on other important life lessons, I still find that at first, I am cautious. And when introductions are made, my stomach muscles tighten, and I wait for it. I wait with hope that people will not ask me what my nationality is, that they will understand the grief this causes me because I know that what they really want to know is my ethnic heritage.

When I am feeling defiant, I tell people my nationality is American, and watch as they push on with “No but what ARE you?” and I repeat American until they keep pushing me to the point where I understand my answer is not enough, does not explain away my tan skin and my almond shaped eyes. Then when I tire of this and realize they do not understand what I am trying to say without actually saying it, I finally tell them I’m Cambodian, and they relax, their minds filing me into a neat and tidy box of categories in their head. When I ask them in turn what they are, they will shrug and say “American” because that is all they need to say, because that is enough for them to be in a whole, united way, a true citizen of this blessed nation.

This does cause me some anguish, but when they pass the first screener question and correctly ask me my ethnicity, I release my stomach muscles and breathe a sigh of relief, they have passed! But then when they’re next question is to ask me if I was born in Cambodia, that it must not be possible for a Cambodian looking and seeming woman to have possibly been born in a temperate, Northern Californian city, that it is beyond them to think of me speaking English for as long as I can remember, I exhale and again my stomach muscles go taut.

For purple mountain majesties, when will my answers be enough?

Last modified: January 10, 2019