What does ‘American’ mean, anyways?

January 16, 2009

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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  1. This post really resonates with me — having grown up in an almost entirely Asian community I have very few “all=American” friends. I’ve always wondered if they lament the lack of heritage in the sense that they can’t go back and visit their grandparents in their home country. My favorite thing about being Taiwanese-American is having the best of both worlds: I get the experiences and opportunities America has to offer, but I have that incredibly rich culture behind me, too, where I get to go to Asia and visit temples and shop night markets and eat stinky tofu on the street. Everyone should be able to have that!

    There are times when my ethnicity also makes me stick out like a sore thumb — here in Cyprus, for example, I’ve been told that the locals sometimes stare at Asians. And going through customs I got a full-on interview while everyone else sort of passed right through. I don’t know if it’s just coincidence, but the other (Caucasian) girls in my group sure didn’t think so! It’ll be an interesting experience to be in the minority for once.

  2. I remember reading my family history (luckily we had a librarian in our family at one point to record it!) and being in awe of the stories. I love that everyone in America has different stories, and this was a great post!

  3. Hi Nisha,

    I don’t cry that often but I was nearly in tears by the end of your post. (Though a good cry has been coming for awhile, I can tell.)

    Anyway, you’re story touched me. I’m half Caucasian and half Pacific Islander, whatever that means, because honestly neither one of my parents is full anything. I’ve found that people see what they want – the guy from Iran who drives a taxi thinks I’m from the Middle East, the guy who patrols the Mexican border wouldn’t let me through because he thought I was Mexican, a guy from Egypt tried to marry me off to one of his rich sons because he thought I was Egyptian, etc.

    But actually, the looks thing isn’t an issue for me – the more confusing part is I actually lived abroad for 12 years because my parents were in the Air Force. So sometimes living in America is really difficult because I don’t understand a lot of the culture. I didn’t watch the same TV shows/movies, I don’t know any celebrities from the 80’s/early 90’s, and I never get the jokes or the references.

    To me, I would think everyone who has lived here all their lives, in one place, who grew up with all the same friends and near their extended families, etc, would have such a better connection to who they are than I do. It’s good to hear that other people are kind of lost too (well, not good, but you know what I mean 🙂 )

  4. Nisha, what an awesome post! As an immigrant, I often question the meaning of being American. I constantly struggle with wanting to maintain a connection to my upbringing in South Africa and wanting to adjust to and embrace life here. When I first moved things felt so foreign and uncomfortable and I often think about how the me from back then might be shocked with how much I’ve assimilated in some ways.

    @ Monica, totally understand the feeling of not getting the cultural references and not having access to people who have known me for my whole life. When Facebook first opened internationally, I was SUPER excited to connect with old friends and family. It was great… but I also find it painful at times to look at old friends pictures and think about how our friendship might have developed over the years etc.

  5. Teresa: I ALWAYS get the full-on search in airport security when everyone else whizzes through. Eventually I just resigned myself to it…haha. But I definitely agree that having the best of both worlds is kinda cool.

    Rebecca — I love the stories too! I really like that in a lot of this comments on this post, here and at BC, people are responding with their own stories about defining their nationality, which is really really cool.

    Monica — Isn’t it interesting that even if we don’t feel we belong to a set nationality, everyone else seems to want to attach some label to us? From your comment it’s really interesting that so many random strangers try to label you with whatever nationality they want to see, when it seems like many people would be more content with no label at all…I feel your pain on that one! I occasionally get told I look Egyptian, Iranian, etc….haha.

    Jaclyn — I didn’t know you lived in South Africa, that must have been a really interesting experience! But I’m sure the move must have been a big culture shock as well. I think it is exciting to see that more and more Americans have spent time living abroad, which I’m sure gives you a lot of really interesting perspective on the world.

  6. I can’t say I’m necessarily proud of this, but I have a negative view of what it means to be American. I think that I have associated “American” with Republican, trucks, NASCAR, blindness, and exclusivity, possibly even ignorance. I just never felt a part of that meaning where the flag is a source of pride. Instead, the American flag seems jaded, almost tainted.

    Can’t quite pinpoint where I got this jilted view of America, but your post sure did challenge me to reexamine what it means to be American. Not to mention this post helped me to realize that I want to understand my place and identity in America. I really do.

  7. By the way — thanks for the post! I look forward to reading more.

    Jamie Varon

  8. Jamie — I know what you mean. One of the first times I went abroad (other than trips to visit family), I went to an international conference in Morocco. There were students there from about 25 countries and everyone was so proud to represent their country there except the Americans. We were all kind of embarassed to be American, and I think that’s something that we’ve been taught for a long time — that America has no real culture and we have no reason to be proud to be American. I learned over time that we do have a lot to offer as America — it’s just that we possess a different national identity than other countries do. But I know where you’re coming from!

  9. I have cousins who are born and bred in the US and they’ve struggled with the same question for years. When they come visiting to India, they find it hard to adjust to the food and climate just like any other foreigner would.

    This was an interesting read. I’ve going to take the liberty of adding you to my blogroll 🙂

  10. […] want to include that don’t fit with anything else at first glance. Nisha Chittal writes about what it means to be an American and Steve Errey writes about dating […]

  11. This was a really great post! I think the great thing about America is exactly what you pointed out – that pretty much anyone, regardless of where they’re from, can become accepted as an “American.” Although I was born in India, I’m an American citizen and consider myself American. No doubt, I’ll always have a place in my heart and a close connection with my motherland. But in the end, when it comes to the country that has given me so many amazing opportunities in life, and provided me with all this privilege – it’s America that’s given back to me. And so I call it my home, and call myself American. I think although it’s cliche, America really is the “land of opportunity.” I love it because I can pursue my dreams here, and I’m totally free to do so.

    Your posts are awesome btw, I love them all! =]

  12. It’s interesting that being caucasian doesn’t necessary mean that people accept that you are American and that’s that. I can’t begin to count how many times people have asked what my background is and when I say ‘I’m American’ they respond, ‘yes, but where are you from? your parents? what’s your heritage?’ Sure, I can respond that I’m a little big English/Danish/Swedish/Welsh/French/I don’t even know what else but even if you are ‘white’ people expect you to have a clear cut answer of ‘My family is German’ or something like that. It’s as if people have a hard time accepting that American can mean something without begin defined in the context of another culture.

  13. Nisha, I’ve been reading your posts and they’re really excellent. They give a lot of food for thought.
    I’m an ex-South African and I find the question of American identity rather strange.
    Surely people born and bred in America should not have an identity crisis, regardless of ancestry or race.
    Obama doesn’t see himself as anything but American, so why do other Americans still have such a persecution complex?
    Why does race and color play such an important part?
    You’re all Americans. Stand up and be proud!

  14. I’m about as white as they come, in every sense of the word. I also happen to think this was a very good post. I will only add that white people, whatever that means, are also strangers to America. Not every white person has been here for centuries. Since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe the U.S. has experienced immigration from those former Bloc countries like never before, of which the majority are white. But I think I understand your point that regardless of how long white people have been in America it’s only non-whites that get the funny looks from immigration officials and so on. I’m sure, though, a white person in India would get the same funny look from a customs official if they were to claim they were Indian. I do like your blog. You should post more 🙂

  15. Chris — thanks for the comment. I wish I could post more! If I had time… Anyways, you’re very right that plenty of white people are new to America. But the analogy about a white person getting funny looks if they told customs they were Indian doesn’t really work, since India is a country where everyone shares the same ethnicity, and the point of America is that everyone doesn’t share the same ethnicity, so Americans can be any color…

  16. i think what makes it difficult to define oneself as american in the united states is having to constantly fill out little forms that ask what your race or nationality is, for consensus/quota/etc. purposes.

    i am brazilian and was raised in the u.s. my american born brother and i have never defined ourselves as american. i moved back to brazil a little over a year ago and when i filled out my paperwork for my identification card here, they put me down as “white,” and i kept gazing at my form thinking, “really?!” that was the only form i have filled out in brazil that has my race, but my id card doesn’t have it on there – nor was i asked when i applied for a job or when i fill out any other paperwork here.

    brazilians, whether they are japanese, italian, portuguese, chinese, african or german descended maintain their cultural identity through language/customs/food, but all identify themselves as brazilian no matter where they are. something i found drastically different from the u.s. where you have to constantly define your background.

    good post – it’s something i have reflected on A LOT myself 🙂

  17. […] 2009, I would think most people would have caught on to the fact that the meaning of American is no longer white, blue-eyed, and blond, but far more diverse than that. It seems some of our lawmakers still haven’t clued in to that, however. Possibly related […]

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