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Patriotism: thoughts from a TCK in the U.S. Army

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The 30-pound steel tank caught onto a step and jabbed harshly into my left shin as my foot slipped on the wet concrete. I grunted and cursed under my breath at the same time. The medical backpack felt like a lead weight on my shoulders by the time I reached the fifth floor. Three more to go, I thought. Leave it to a project building in Harlem to have a broken elevator. I’d take a urine soaked elevator any day than to take a urban hike up eight flights of stairs with all my equipment.

Squeezing through the door with my two bags, I saw two cops and four firefighters staring down at a moaning body.  The fire lieutenant mumbled something inaudible in his radio and shoved past me.

“All yours, boys,” the lieutenant said with half a smirk under his crowbar mustache. The two cops stood there, annoyed as a hysterical wife shrieked at them to do something for her unconscious husband.

It stunk. I pushed aside a large stack of newspapers and threw a garbage bag full of clothes, picture frames, and bottles filled with God-knows-what down the hallway. The body was lit only by a dim bulb hanging in the bathroom. I threw down my bags and my partner started to open up the equipment, gathering a variety of medications and needles.

“Hey, can you hear me man?” I said loudly as I took a hold of his arm.  He was cold.  Ice cold.  My gloved hands could barely keep a grip on his arm as sweat poured out of his pores.  I placed an oxygen mask on his face and began a intravenous line on his arm, talking to him and his wife the entire time.  Somehow our conversation lead to the jerk chicken and cornbread I had for lunch a few blocks down.  The wife joked about how good her baked chicken was, and that her husband probably just ate too much of it at lunch. Or maybe it was the double dose of insulin she had decided to shoot her husband up with, I quietly thought to myself. As I slowly pushed the dose of sugar into his veins, the patient gave out a gasp, opened his eyes and wiped the sweat off his brow.

“Holy shit, you’re not black?” the patient exclaimed as he examined me from head to toe. My partner and the two police officers burst out laughing.

“No sir, I’m more of a twinkie,” I said with one eyebrow raised. As I brought him down to the ambulance, I listened to him, flabbergasted that I wasn’t a fellow African-American, and much less of an American. He had been unconscious, but he had heard every word since I stepped into his apartment. When he opened his eyes, he was surprised he saw a pair of slanted eyes on dark yellow skin.

“Not what I expected, but hey, I was glad to see you, thanks for saving my ass,”  he said as we shook hands in the Emergency room.

Everybody loves some racism.

So I know I sound American, even African-American if I decide to throw out some slang.  Hell, working the streets of Harlem for just a year as an FDNY paramedic allowed me to learn how to “ghettofy” my university educated English when I needed or just wanted to.  Apparently it’s not enough.

I’ve been wearing red, white, and blue since grade school — literally.  My high school uniform at the American school of Singapore consisted of a white polo, red lettering, a eagle, and blue pants. I’ve been developing American ideals and shades of the flag from more than halfway around the world in relation to the United States.

My family is from Hong Kong.  I’ve lived in Tokyo, Toronto, New York, Singapore, New York again, and Louisiana.  When people ask where I’m from, I struggle the Third Culture Kid way and debate between New York and Singapore. Seven years in Singapore, and 12 years in the US.  Though I can never pass up Singaporean chicken rice and Tiger beer, I almost just tell everyone I’m from New York because it’s the “easy way out.”

And when it comes to my “citizenship,” my passport is from Britain, because of Hong Kong’s former colonial rule.  It doesn’t even make sense anymore because as of June of 1997, Hong Kong’s sovereignty was given back to China.  So technically, I’m supposed to apply for a Chinese passport.  Never bothered. I’m a citizen of nowhere, apparently.

Well, expats can be patriots too.

When I first arrived at my first 911 Emergency Medical Service job, I was assigned a locker next to one with a ribbon and a picture.  A small remembrance of someone that had sacrificed his life to help others on 9/11.  I knew I had big shoes to fill, and I was honored to be given the chance.

For all purposes, I consider myself a patriot.  I may have been halfway around the globe just finishing dinner instead of breakfast when the two commercial airlines flew into the Twin Towers and marked the first terrorist attack on American soil in history.  However, along with many of my fellow Americans at the Singapore American School, we had the same emotions as those walking the streets of New York City, or any other place in the United States.  And even though I had only spent 5 years in New York in elementary school at the time, it had felt close. I have much respect for my brothers and sisters in the FDNY that were there on that day.

Not too long ago, I wandered into a hardware store looking for some light bulbs.

“Who ordered the Chinese food?” the attendant said, eyeing me.  I kept the explicit epithets to myself.  It bothered me.  Not only did I think he was a complete moron, but all I could think was, is this guy serious?  I’ve learned to find myself as a TCK over the years, but I’ve also learned to accept that racism will always be around.  It just doesn’t bother me anymore.

It can be problematic for the third culture kid returning to the United States after seven years in Singapore.  Struggling TCK’s seem to need to prove their “loyalty” to their fellow Americans.  And for the longest time, I felt that I needed to show them that I was one of them.  Another seven years has passed, and my mindset has completely changed.

Today, I wear the red, white, and blue in the form of a flag on my right shoulder. I’m a combat medic for the United States Army and I don’t need a passport or white skin to know what I’m fighting for.  They gave me the nickname “Jackie” in boot camp.  A fellow soldier jokes about how I’m here spying for China all the time.  Tells me that the swamps in Louisiana aren’t rice paddies.  I only laugh and slug him in the shoulder a few times while telling him he‘s trailer trash and needs to learn how to read.  Either way, we have a understanding, and I’d put my life in his hands during combat any day.

The only one that needs to understand your identity is yourself.  If someone actually wants to learn about how you came to be, then appreciate their open-mindedness and share your story.  If they don’t, screw ‘em, it’s not worth the headache.

5 Comments

  1. Yvonne Buffington says

    Hooah! Thanks for your story. As a USAR who came back from Hawai’i to the segregated South years ago and asked my parents where ‘all the other kids were’, I get it. It’s not always easy to be understood.
    YCWB

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  2. Great attitude to have when it comes to these things. In high school my buddy would also be real casual with his remarks and they were pretty racist, but you roll with it and zing a couple back just like you said.

    It’s funny though, ’cause you feel like that should only be reserved to interactions with close friends but if random people decide to take it to that level, why not play the game and be self-deprecating? I mostly see it as being a good sport and just figure why let them get me upset?

    Anyways, quite a life you’re leading and I applaud your resolve. As a fellow New Yorker once upon a time, obviously I’m aware of all that you guys in the FDNY do. Really incredible stuff. Best of luck in the Army Ambrose, hope to see more of you on Denizen!

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  3. The racist comments are usually from the ignorant. Sometimes it bothers me and I have to ignore them or I get heated and bark back. Most of the time, I like making others confused. There are days when I definitely pass for “hapa” and I relish those days b/c no one questions my cultural confusion.

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  4. Ambrose, pretty amazing story! As for the accents, I couldn’t help but think of a french stand up comic. The sketch was based on north african immigrants climbing in society. In an executive board meeting, and in the middle of the sentence relapsing back to the immigrant accent, only to yell “shoot, I relapsed! Where did my accent pills go?”.

    As far as racism goes, I like your attitude. I never had the problem, though I know I would probably chew people’s heads off every once in a while if I were in your shoes. I do it now, when Americans assume idiotic things about the French. Or the French about Americans.

    Good luck in the army man, I hear it’s a tough gig. And keep writing if you have time, from what friends I have that were in the army tell me it’s a pretty interesting place to be, and worth learning more about.

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