Update: just after I published this piece, I read a fantastic article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic about the changing racial/ethnic makeup of America. If you liked this post, check out the Atlantic article HERE for a thought-provoking read.
So I spent the last two weeks backpacking in Southeast Asia, and yes it was fantastic! But today when I sat down in front of the laptop I had missed so dearly for two weeks, what I wanted to write about wasn’t all the stuff I did, but something that most people regard almost insignificant.
I wanted to write about the spare minute or two we spent in each country on our trip (5 of them, not counting our re-entry into the US yesterday morning) filling out arrival and departure cards. Of all the time we spend traveling, it’s probably the most easily forgotten two minutes of any traveler’s time abroad.
But for me, waiting in line at customs and filling out that card so many times was interesting because the third line on each card, after first and last name, would always be “Nationality.” And then the government of that country would give you one line with 10 little boxes, one per letter, within which to neatly write down the country you hail from. You know, as if our national identities could be neatly encompassed in 8-10 little boxes.
I always spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the card trying to figure out what to write down. Then eventually I give up and write down American, because that’s what the title on my passport says I am. But writing American on that card always, every year, made me feel like a little bit of an impostor. I never felt ‘American’ like my peers, despite bring born and raised in the United States. I felt more like I was supposed to be a foreigner; and that Americans were people that had been here for generations. People that weren’t separated from the rest by immigrant parents and cultural barriers and skin colors.
One night last week, my friends and I sat in a restaurant in Phuket, Thailand, discussing our backgrounds. Of the five of us, one was Caucasian, one Japanese, two were Americans whose parents immigrated to the US from India, and one had parents who immigrated from Hong Kong. We were discussing whether we more closely associated ourselves with America, or with our original country, and each of us shared about the collective pull we have all felt at times between our heritage and the country we now live in.
And then it was the one white guy’s turn– the one whose family can be traced in America for generations back, the one person at the dinner table that night who I felt was lucky enough to feel truly secure that he, really, is American.
He, I knew, will never have an identity crisis about what nation can lay claim to him, nor will he feel like an impostor when he writes down American. He will never know how frustrating it is to be challenged by people you meet in other countries who, because of the color of your skin, can’t believe you when you insist you’re American. I thought he had it easy — but then he confessed that his lack of ethnic background meant that he felt like he was constantly on a search, constantly struggling to redefine for himself what “American” truly means.
And I realized: isn’t that the very essence of being American? The fact that every one of us, white or black or Asian or whatever else, are constantly redefining what it means to be “American”? If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few weeks, it’s that the criteria with which we used to decide what and who is perceived as American in the past is crap.
What much of the world doesn’t understand about America yet, and many Americans themselves don’t understand, is that our identity as a nation is changing. This is the only nation where you can come over from any other country in the world and assimilate into the culture here. I could move to Cambodia, but I’d never be a Cambodian — I’d forever be branded an expat, a foreigner. But a Cambodian could move to the US and eventually become one of the 300,000,000 other Americans. And the thing that ties us all together is the fact that we can be one society, where each one of us possesses our own unique story as to how we ended up in this continent and how we became American. We can forget the barriers that separate us and learn to appreciate diversity for what it is, and for what it can teach us.
And what a remarkable concept that is. Having a funny last name that no one can pronounce, or having parents from a different country doesn’t have to make you less American than anyone else — it makes you a shining example of what America can stand for. Hell, you could become president!
What does “American” mean to you?
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