Your best American girl

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There are enough breakup songs out there to mend an army of broken hearts twice over. Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” was unequivocally mine. It’s about wanting to fit into someone’s very American life but not being able to because you’re from a different place.

Unlike Mitski, I’m not from somewhere else. I was born in the United States, and I believe that I belong here. Just knowing these two facts, though, was not enough to save me from the earth-shattering cultural dysphoria that I felt after my first relationship ended, let alone the sheer teenage heartbreak.

Let’s call my ex-partner “Liam” — that’s an American enough name, right? (I had to look up “popular American baby boy names” on Google.) Liam and I broke up a week before our one-year mark. There were a number of reasons why our relationship wasn’t working: the long-distance aspect, our unequal emotional labor and my spiraling mental health, to name a few. None of these reasons felt as insurmountable as the fact that we came from different cultural understandings of the world.

In Mitski’s words, Liam was “the sun” — the image of an idyllic American white kid. He’s frustratingly intelligent and athletic, and he comes from a close-knit nuclear family with a self-made, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude. Compared to him, I was “not even a star.” Not because I believed that he was better than me in any way, but because Liam was a good metric of Americanness. The latter half of our relationship showed me that I fell far below where I thought I was on this scale. More than that, I had no power over where I could fall on this scale.

I never introduced him to my parents. After surviving the Vietnam War, my refugee family certainly didn’t “get” dating. Our generational trauma relates the Western concept of young love to devastating consequences: You shouldn’t risk loving someone you can lose, and love is more of a duty than an end in itself. Even if I wasn’t born during the war, I still felt its aftermath. I remember being traumatized as a child when my parents learned that my sister had a boyfriend and thereafter policed her daily life; I wasn’t willing to risk my safety and privacy at home by telling them about my relationship.

Since I had internalized that I should fear and revere my elders, I was also shy and clumsy around his parents. It felt strange and awkward to walk up to an adult and have a conversation because I never spoke to adults unless they told me to speak. Wrapping my head around the idea that you could be friendly with someone much older than you was difficult, to say the least.

My cultural upbringing is a moot point, though, because these are not parts of myself that I consciously display. Americans can only see what I show them. In this case, Liam’s family could only see my awkwardness as rudeness or my privacy as craftiness, as if I had something to hide (they weren’t wrong).

Our relationship ended because I couldn’t fit into this idyllic American frame. It was a familiar narrative, albeit one that I hadn’t experienced in years. My breakup was so difficult because I was blindsided. I lost so much of who I believed I fundamentally was.

For a long time, I thought I had done a decent job at carving a home for myself out of the American psyche. I was desperate to pursue Americanness, which includes things that I wish I had growing up, such as “I’m sorry” or “I love you” from my parents. It turns out that Americanness is practiced until it becomes a seemingly intrinsic quality rather than merely attained. It felt bizarre that I could be born here and raised here just like Liam but still have to prove that I belong here.

Coming to terms with my marginalized identity during my first relationship felt hellish. My first relationship taught me that I could never fully feel like I belong. But the unlikely lesson of my adolescent heartbreak is that a crucial component of my American experience is feeling out of place. Because the United States is an experiment.

In this experiment, my existence is radical. Just by choosing to take up space, I am decolonizing my mind and body. Just by living and breathing, I am pushing the narrow boundaries of what it means to be American. Just by loving and making love, I am expressing the whole gamut of human experiences.

“Your Best American Girl” was my breakup song not because it was some convenient diary entry telling of my own cultural dysphoria but because it’s actually more hopeful than it is sad. Mitski says her former lover’s mother wouldn’t approve of how her own mother raised her. But Mitski does.

Today, I’m feeling grateful for how my mother raised me. The special thing about having a sometimes-ambiguous cultural identity is that you can have your heart broken hundreds of times by hundreds of people and still come out of it knowing that you make up you, that you are OK with your experiences, who you are and where you came from — whatever that means.

Laura Nguyen writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]