Upon his arrival at Harvard, Michael C. George ’14 faced a peculiar dilemma. A participant in the Freshman International Program, he was given a name tag on which to write his country of origin. For Michael—born in Hawaii, raised in the Philippines, educated in Malaysia, and currently resident in Mexico—filling out his FIP name tag was an exercise in confronting his own unusually complex origin story and his place at Harvard as an international American.
Michael’s parents met while pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Hawaii. His father was born in the Indian state of Kerala, a southern region with a strong Christian community (“hence why my name is Michael George—maybe it doesn’t advertise my ethnicity well”). His mother is from the northern town of Agoo in the Philippines, though she is also of East Asian ethnic descent. Michael recounts that his difference in appearance from his mother was often a source of confusion for people while he was growing up. In the Philippines, he remembers, passersby would sometimes look inquisitively at his mother and him: the lighter-skinned woman speaking Tagalog (with a regional accent), walking with a native English-speaking, darker-skinned child through the stalls of the local wet market.
Despite having spent the majority of his life abroad, Michael had a markedly American upbringing. Culturally, he watched mostly American movies and listened to mostly American music (though sometimes both were “over two years old” by the time they reached him in the Eastern hemisphere). Linguistically, he also spoke only English, as that was his parents’ only language of commonality and, thus, what was spoken most in his home. Every summer, he and his family would return to the States to visit family, exposing him even further to American life.
His parents’ work in microfinance and biotechnology often led them to the hinterlands of each country to which they moved. Nestled in a community of international scientists and their children, all of whom spoke English, he found himself limited in his exposure to Filipino culture.
“My formative years were spent in the Philippines, but I did not feel as if I had many specifically Filipino experiences,” he notes.
After graduating high school in Malaysia and coming to Harvard, Michael hoped to meet other international students by participating in FIP. During the early days of orientation, though, he remembers not feeling “very international” as he explored Boston with his fellow FIP participants.
“FIP was a lot of fun, but I found that some of the information we learned was superfluous and unnecessary for me (and for the Canadians) because I had already had so much exposure to American life. Just because we were all international, that didn’t end up translating into one shared experience between us all.”
At the start of classes, once all freshmen had arrived on campus, Michael found that he did not fit in quite so easily among his American-raised classmates either. Explaining his upbringing was often a confusing enterprise: Soon into the semester, he began telling people that he was simply from Hawaii, despite having little connection to the state by the time he was 18 years old.
“I’ve always felt that being American has been my main identity, but I was self-conscious about not having grown up in the States. Whenever I would miss out on a cultural reference, I felt that I had to prove my Americanness to people.”
Part of the confusion, Michael notes, stemmed from his race. Speaking with Caucasian friends of his who had similarly international upbringings, Michael found that their transitions into American life were made easier by the assumptive associations between being white and being American. In his experience, by contrast, he has found that people are more likely to question his American identity because, in addition to having lived in Asia, he has South and Southeast Asian heritage. When he interned at the White House, he recounts, a lot of people expressed surprise, not realizing that he was an American citizen.
As part of his extracurricular pursuits at Harvard, Michael serves as the curriculum chair for the Institute of Politics citizenship tutoring program, helping university employees from abroad pass their exams.
“The people we tutor are incredibly passionate about becoming American citizens. It kind of reminds you that one of the great things about the United States is that, even though the naturalization process is difficult, Americans come from everywhere.”
His time tutoring has had a profound influence on him. Now when Michael introduces himself to people, he gives them a brief rundown of his whole life story. Though it may have had myriad twists and turns, his journey as a child and young adult across the world has had, he now realizes, a critical impact on his personal development.
“I used to think that being international wasn’t a strong part of my identity, but I had the realization sophomore year that it was tremendously influential. I no longer feel insecure about having to prove my Americanness—being American doesn’t mean being one thing.”
With only one semester left of college, Michael is busy preparing for postgraduate life. While he hopes to pass more time abroad pursuing his interests in international development, he plans on spending the next couple years of his life in the United States.
“Growing up abroad was an incredibly valuable experience and gave me a lot of perspective on global issues, but I feel like I need to make up for some lost time.”
Matthew M. Beck ’14 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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