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Letter | The different meanings of being a native
“How will Gary Locke feel in China?” is an ordinary question.
“Like any native returning home,” would be heard among ethnic communities.
By native, I refer to Mr. Locke’s Chinese heritage, notwithstanding his birthplace in Washington state.
Washingtonians can pride themselves on a native being appointed ambassador and no one doubts Mr. Locke’s influence with the world’s giant of business and economics.
However, Gary Locke and his family will be living with people of similar ethnicity, but in a different culture.
Unlike the predominance of equality in the U.S., as soon as they travel to their homes of origin, ethnic Americans often face innuendos of being a ‘traitor.’ Manifestations of superiority or inferiority are often displayed when one has reached the top link of success, such as an ambassadorship to a “foreign” country — no, not foreign, but back to his country of ancestral origin.
My Armenian legacy includes the word ‘odaar,’ meaning alien, foreigner, outsider or the derivative of any similar adjective. If not born of Armenian parents, one is an odaar even after learning the language, adopting Orthodox Christianity or marrying a full-blooded Armenian. There’s a distinct exclusivity to being Armenian.
A similar distinction is applied to fellow citizens like Gary Locke or me.
To cite an example, I must relate my story, although my only commonality with Washington’s former governor is that we are both citizens of the United States and we each own an ethnic heritage.
I have experienced finger-pointing — not in America, but in Iraq, the country of my birth.
After 11 years of absence, I returned to Baghdad to introduce my husband and two children to my parents. The reunion was gratifying. When it was time to return to Seattle to enroll the children in their respective schools, we were informed we needed an exit visa, applied for in person at the Ministry of Exterior in Baghdad. I learned how a former ‘native’ is regarded.
I gathered my family and followed my dad’s lead into the Ministry. The official reprimanded me for not being a true Iraqi who would stay in Baghdad to help her country thrive and prosper. He accused me of being no less than a traitor.
“Don’t you know we need teachers in Iraq?” He pointed at me. “Don’t you know we send people like you to get educated so that they will return their gratitude to us with service? Don’t you know that I can deny you your exit visa?” He ranted at no end, and I was beginning to think that seeing my parents was becoming a nightmare.
Then he added one more “don’t you.” “Don’t you know that it is people like you on whom we depend for our international image?”
Aha! For the first time, I could give him a piece of my mind without resorting to a lie.
“Sir,” I said. “I am doing exactly that in America. I am teaching Arabic to Americans so that they have a better understanding of our worthy culture.”
He became speechless. Without further ado, he issued our exit visa.
My story convinces me that people like Ambassador Locke — or ordinary citizens like me — will remain odaar eternally. We both love our ethnic roots, yet we’ve received slurs from our former compatriots (see Seattle Times, March 10, 2011, “Not all in China happy about Locke,” by Barbara Demick of the LA Times).
There is something about being an odaar in an adopted land. We’re never a native anymore — neither in the U.S. nor at our ‘home’ of origin. But then, where’s home?