Becoming an American teenage girl

More sharing today from Emily… If it seems I post often on the topic of my daughter becoming American, it’s because she’s lately quite chatty on the subject, and I want to capture and share what I suspect is a rather rare and fleeting glimpse at the process of teenage Americanization.

Over lunch today Emily told me about her “girl’s world” as she called it. Though she made a point to disclaim any understanding of what it’s like for boys, here are some facts of being a mixed race/culture/language teenage girl in Orange County, California in 2015.

Unlike Japan, where ethnicity broke down into three basic categories of Japanese, Foreigner and “Half” (mixed), things in California appear a lot more complicated. In Japan, Emily often masked her mixed heritage in an attempt to blend in with the largely homogeneous Japanese community. She rarely used English in public, and even went so far as to “dumb-down” her English so as to not appear different from her peers. There’s no such hesitation in California, where diversity is the norm and communities of children from different backgrounds freely mingle and communicate in multiple languages.

The complexity comes from degrees of cultural familiarity and language fluency; with children raised overseas forming quite intimate cliques, where membership is small and exclusive to the extent that those who are not part of the group tend to voluntarily remove themselves as they become more American, and more comfortable with kids like themselves, kids not so foreign. The longer such a child has been in the USA, the more distant they draw away from this small native group, as they start thinking like an American, their English becomes more fluent, and their connections stronger with others who are further along the spectrum of Americanization.

The biggest group of mixed-heritage kids consists of those who are in the middle and between cultures. Such children are well represented in social circles such as the Japan Club, Korea Club and China Club, which are filled with kids whose adaption is midway between cultures. At the far opposite end are the girls who have been here longest and who have nearly become “Real Americans” (Emily’s words). The change being less related to language acquisition alone, but rather the wholesale transformation of attitude, behavior and mores from the culture or origin to the culture of acclimation.

Emily reports there is lots of crossover between the groups, with smaller, mixed culture friendship circles forming from all races, where the common bond is personality and the common language is English. She says that this is where the real transformation takes place, as the girls strive to become “normal” against the only common standard they share, which is the perceived behavior and attitude of the American teen. The “Real American” girls (those not raised overseas) who are part of these groups (they tend to be few) are unwitting role models for this standard, along with whatever popular culture the foreign-raised girls are exposed to.

Emily told me that appearance is also important, in ways both similar and different to her experience in Japan. Like in Japan, Emily does not feel fully Japanese here due to her obviously mixed appearance, and she told me she senses some distance between herself and the “Real Japanese” girls due to this simple fact. On the other hand, her appearance stands out in stark contrast to her very Japanese mannerisms, which have earned her the curious nickname of “The Polite American.” Emily told me that she currently shares this title with one other Japanese girl at her school of identical circumstance, who together rather baffle their Asian friends by looking like “Real Americans” but behaving like “Real Japanese.”

Though this is all quite confusing, I’m happy to report that Emily seems fine with this complex cultural churn. While we were talking, one of her friends called, a Japanese girl who came to the USA at age eleven, and is currently on the outer fringe of the “Real Japanese” community due to her extreme normalization to American culture. I’ve met the girl several times and would have thought her born and raised in the USA if Emily didn’t tell me otherwise. I was startled to hear my daughter speaking on the phone with her friend in English (both girls are native Japanese speakers) with the frank, open confidence of an American teen. Throwing out harmless slang and idioms with the careless ease of a native speaker. After the call, I mentioned to Emily that I was impressed with how far her English has come in such a short time. She seemed pleased, though she quickly reminded me that though her tongue has already become American, her mind was still very much Japanese.


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