Long before I was selected for a Fulbright Scholarship to Taiwan, I spent most of my life on a different island across the Pacific Ocean. I was born and raised in Hawaii, a multicultural community known for its diversity. Despite my Chinese and Japanese heritage, I never considered myself “Asian-American.” I was just American.
In communities like Hawaii, American people embrace and celebrate each other’s cultures. We demonstrate our commitment to American values, such as freedom and equality. We believe in the “American Dream,” the idea that anyone who is willing to work hard may achieve some level of success. We may not always agree on what is “right,” but we respect each other enough to maturely discuss, negotiate, and overcome those differences. One could say this is an idealized image of America, a naïve one that does not clearly capture the struggle, violence, and hatred that still exists in America today. But I believe that the sense of love, pride, and belief in these fundamental values will always overcome those hardships.
My undergraduate education at the US Air Force Academy highlighted and reinforced this image. I found myself surrounded by people who, despite their differences, were patriotic individuals and bound by a desire to serve. Most of us shared fundamental support of US foreign policy and its dominant role in international affairs. Although occasionally critical of US policy, we were united by a strong underlying belief that despite its missteps, the United States would always work towards protecting the greater good.
The Fulbright Scholarship helped me realize that the rest of the world does not always share my perspective of America and what it means to be an American. Through this scholarship, I was given the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree in the International Master’s Program in International Studies (IMPIS) at National Chengchi University. This English-speaking program attracts students from all around the world. I shared a classroom with students from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Honduras, Brazil, and Mexico, as well as from various cities throughout Taiwan. Whether discussing international relations or the international political economy, the United States always played a central role. We discussed the delicate nature of US involvement in Taiwan’s complex relationship with China, and analyzed the effects of NAFTA on international trade. No one could deny the United States’ enduring prominence as the strongest power in the international system. However, other countries responded to this prominence in a far different way from what I expected.
For the first time, I was confronted with the idea that the United States was not the “shining city on a hill” that I had always imagined. I listened to my classmates critique and criticize US foreign policy decisions, democracy promotion efforts, and other “Western imperialistic tendencies.” For the first time ever, I found myself surrounded by an array of different countries’ representatives that questioned the status of the United States as a leading power. I was flabbergasted as to how a country that I always assumed to act on the right side of history could also be perceived as greedy, selfish, and imperialistic by the rest of the world.
Even some of my American classmates seemed to have lost faith in the US. After the 2016 US presidential elections, some Americans abroad have become increasingly cynical and distrustful of their own government, questioning its ability to protect certain individual rights. I watched as my idealized image of America fractured and crumbled. These new outside perspectives revealed flaws I had never considered before.
My first reaction was to defend American foreign policy decisions and justify its actions. My classmates pressed me with hard questions about US decision-making, and sometimes, I had no answer. After listening to my classmates’ perspectives, I began looking more introspectively at the perceived misalignment between the words and actions of the United States. I realized that the US had made significant mistakes, costing resources and credibility within the international community. Over the years, countries have lost faith in the United States, turning to other great powers, such as China, for support.
As difficult as it is to listen to criticism, it is even more difficult when it is directed towards the country you represent and the values you stand for. For a time, I also became increasingly cynical about the United States, mourning its fall from responsible international leader to imperialistic self-interested tyrant. I questioned my understanding of what it means to be an American, wondering if there was any truth to that image that I carried for so long. My perception of America was completely out of line with how the rest of the world perceived America, but that did not necessarily mean my understanding was inaccurate or incorrect. I could still see that idealized image of America, but why didn’t the rest of the world see what I saw?
Living in Taiwan has helped me realize that Americans need to be more attentive to the perspectives of the international community. The lack of this attention has significantly damaged the credibility of the United States over time. However, by understanding the basis of these perspectives, encouraging dialogue between countries, and fostering mutual understanding, Americans can address the concerns of other countries and reestablish itself as a responsible, reliable stakeholder in the international community. The United States needs to be receptive to new ideas and outside perspectives. For too long have Americans become complacent with their status as a leading power in the world. Younger generations see that idealized image of America, but have done nothing to protect or maintain it. Americans need to convey American ideals through action, redefining what it means to be an American in the international community.
Some may say that such an idealized image of America is a naïve aspiration, one that could never be feasibly achieved, but does that mean we should stop trying? I believe that it is possible to be a proud American while acknowledging its flaws, and an understanding of those flaws is crucial to further improvement in the future. Fulbright Taiwan has provided an eye-opening experience for me as an American and as a global citizen. This experience has made me far more aware of how the international community perceives the United States, and has motivated me to someday play a role in addressing those concerns.
I am proud of my country, and I am grateful for the opportunities it has provided me. I am fortunate to have been born in what I believe to be the greatest country in the world. But with that pride also comes a desire to improve, a responsibility to leave behind a better world than the one we have now. Americans must be prepared to rise to that challenge and redefine what it means to be American in the years to come.