What is Your Nationality?

Scholastic Gold Key

 

The name is Matt Masahiro Tengtrakool, male, 16 years old, Massachusetts, USA. The definition of nationality is, “the status of belonging to a particular nation.” Belonging is a broad term. Yes, one can belong to a place. Nevertheless, one can also belong to a multitude of nouns: a person, idea, or thing. Based on the given information, please choose the following answer that fits his nationality the best. 

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First and foremost, his name is Matt, a very run-of-the-mill name — almost boring.   Matt is short for Matthew, meaning “gift from God” in Hebrew, and referencing Matthew the Apostle in Christianity. Now, his father had an interesting path through religion, growing up training to be a monk at a local temple. In his teenage years, he was sent to a Christian private school in his town. Nowadays, he lives an almost agnostic life. However, often he will say, “Matt, I swear to god! Did you just spend $15 on Clash of Clans?” Matt does not know what god he would swear to. On the other hand, Matt’s mother is a misguided woman.  At times, she denounces religion, yet continues to watch old men preach sermons on “How to find your spiritual guide” videos on Youtube. Matt would characterize his parents as confused.

His father chose the name Matthew. “It will help him fit into American society better,” he argued to Matt’s mother, “an easy name will help him make friends.” His father’s name is Danai Tengtrakool. Get Danai-ed, is one of Matt’s favorite phrases. Danai immigrated from Thailand at 16 years old and spent his high school years in Malden, Massachusetts.  

Matthew was the fourth most popular boys name the year Matt was born. There were three other Matthews in Matt’s fourth grade English class: Matt P, Matt C, and Matt D. All of whom were white. Additionally, there are many famous Matthews: Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford. However, Matt T. is none of the above.  

Matt is American, not necessarily Anglo-Saxon. “What is your nationality?” asks his history teacher. Internally, he replies American, for he was born in Newton, Massachusetts, USA, and has lived in Burlington, Massachusetts, USA, his whole life. Yet, externally he is wary if this answer fits the prompt.  

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Middle names are often overlooked and underappreciated. Many people do not even have a middle name. In many cases, middle names represent the marginalized side of one’s ancestry or the oppressed peoples in history. 

Masahiro (真広) is a Japanese name. When Matt was younger, he concealed his middle name. He subconsciously believed that this name was something that should be hidden, that it should be kept as one’s personal identity but not one’s external expression. “What is your middle name?” his friends would ask him, as kids do in elementary school. His friend Kevin would reply for him, “it’s Ma-sa-hiro.” They all would be exclaim, “Wow! You’re like a massive superhero.” Yet, Matt did not feel like one. 

Originally, his mother wanted him to have the first name Masahiro. She was always trying to infuse as much Japanese culture into him as she could. According to her, Matt’s family is from a long line of noble Samurai Warriors. The closest Matt’s felt to having Samurai blood was when he karate chopped a wooden plank in the third grade. Matt’s mother is an unwavering full-blooded Japanese. She forced Matt to go to Japanese school for 9 years and, as a consequence, Matt is fluent in the language. It is quite possible that this strong presence of Japanese culture in Matt’s life stems from the pride she takes in her last name.  His mother’s name is Hiromi Mino. She kept her last name through marriage. At a young age, both of Matt’s grandparents on his mother’s side died. His assumption is that his mother felt the obligation to shoulder their culture in order to continue her parents’ legacy.

Matt’s usual answer to the query “What is your ethnicity?” is Japanese. 

They always respond, “Do you mean like California rolls and anime and Naruto and those Chinese letters and hibachi and instant ramen?”

Matt responds, “Sure,”  for he likes cherry blossoms, torii gates, the politeness of the country, the cleanliness, the architecture, and yes the instant ramen.  

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Tengtrakool (teng-tra-cool) is like a rambutan, daunting at first sight but turning out to be sweet and leaving a tangy aftertaste. Yes! it is like that Pokemon, Tentacool, and just in case Matt forgot, his 10th-grade Chemistry teacher reminded him of this every day during attendance for the first week of school. Tengtrakool is a mouthful. Matt’s swim coach created the alternative of “techtron.”  

Matt’s grandparents on his father’s side were born and raised in Laos. Matt made a presentation in history last year called “The covert war in Laos, America’s Secret War,”  which included a panel on his relation to this subject area. His grandparents were alive in the middle of this covert theater of America’s war on communism, along with the Laotian civil war.  

“I never knew you were Lotion” one of Matt’s friends exclaimed.  

Matt’s grandpa was a rich businessman who had a monopoly on ice. The business model was simple: hot climate, people need ice. Matt has seen pictures of his grandpa in his prime: driving fancy cars, living a luxurious lifestyle, and basking in his youth. At this time, their last name was Teng, indicating further ancestry tracing back to China.

This Teng lifestyle came to a swift end as the Laotian civil war struck and the communists took power.  Needless to say, the family packed up the kids and as much as they could take in one suitcase and headed to Thailand. The communists set limits on money that could be taken out of the country, so his grandparents made a difficult decision: they buried their money in hopes of returning to retrieve their lives’ savings. 

To quote Matt’s grandfather, “I no like communist, they come an take yo mony, you business you know. Then they gonna come an getcha you.”   

The family lived a life of destitution in Thailand, and to cover their Laotian past, they changed their last name to Tengtrakool. “Trakool” was an added flare that reflected his grandfather’s enjoyment of being excessive. What they did not consider was that MatthewTengtrakool does not fit the Twitter username length, or the sheer panic Tengtrakool would cause in substitute teachers staring at it on the attendance sheet.

“My nationality is Thai,” Matt will tell people. They will usually respond with, “Oh yea I support you 100%, China has no right claiming authority over your people.” When he corrects them and tells them it is Thailand, not Taiwan, they proceed “Oh! like Bangkok haha, do you get it?” 

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Matt Masahiro Tengtrakool is a name like an eighth, quarter, half. It has an interesting imbalance: an imbalance of heritage perhaps. It is a reflection of the strain between one culture and another. Or, it is also an illustration of a meshing. A cultural melting pot that consists of sushi, Pad Thai, and McDonalds. Matt looks down at the bubbles on his standardized test. He thinks to himself: What does it mean to be American? Can one be foreign, yet not born abroad? Should nationality be as relative as identity? What are the boundaries between ancestry and nationality? For if nationality was a multiple-choice question, he believes the best answer is all of the above.

 

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