What Does It Mean to Be an American?

by Brian on July 3, 2012 in Personal Development,Travel

Does being an American mean something special? Does it even mean anything at all? Does anyone even care anymore?

After recently returning from a trip overseas to Korea and looking forward to the upcoming 4th of July, I find myself reflecting once again on what it means to be an American. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, but somehow my American-ness always snaps sharply into focus when I’m abroad.

I read a few children’s essays as I was organizing my thoughts and they said things like “it means I can be what I want to when I grow up” and “it means I’m free” and “I watch fireworks on the 4th of July.”

To my parents generation born in the postwar era of the ‘40s and ‘50s being an American means that the American flag is the symbol of our country. It should be respected and that respect is shown by saluting the flag and pledging allegiance to it. We’ve fought world wars to protect our freedom and no one knows the value of our freedom more than the men of the greatest generation who fought in those wars our generation was lucky enough not to have to fight. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

That generation thinks that my generation doesn’t know that they feel that way, but we do know. We just don’t necessarily agree with those sentiments or experience our American-ness in the same way.

To a certain crowd being an American means that “I have the right to say fuck you.”

People from other countries view Americans as oppressors, tyrants, full of themselves, business partners, suckers, and saviors.

The other Americans, that is people from countries in North and South America other than the United States, often feel that we have misappropriated the name “American.” As a man from Chile once eagerly pointed out to me in a bookstore in Tokyo, “I am [he is] an American too.”

Being an American clearly means many different things to many different people.

With so many different viewpoints, what can we really say about being an American?

Land of the free

Almost all notions held by Americans about what it means to be an American contain some notion of being free. We have the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to own firearms, freedom in the pursuit of happiness, and many other freedoms.

America hasn’t always lived up to that promise. Slavery, segregation, the Manzanar concentration camps, Guantanamo Bay, and even the Salem witch trials are black marks on the American freedom record.

Overseas we have often supported or even installed totalitarian and oppressive regimes when we wanted to secure oil, sugar, or simply wanted an ally on the payroll to support American interests. Consequently, we have also trampled on the freedom of other nations.

However, we’ve also taken great strides to correct our mistakes by abolishing slavery, abolishing segregation, enfranchising the disenfranchised, and leveling the economic playing field in the US.

And as sure as our international record has blemishes, it also has highlights. The allied victory in World War 2 and subsequent rebuilding efforts in Germany and Japan have led to the democratic rebirth of some of the most powerful nations on Earth. You also needn’t look any further than how much South Korea is flourishing compared to its northern neighbor to see an example of American support bolstering freedom.

While America may not always get it right, on balance we have done a reasonable job of preserving our freedom and increasing the overall level of freedom in the world over time.

Shared culture and heritage

The notion of a shared American culture and heritage is paradoxically both true and false at the same time.

America is a land of immigrants with many traditions and races. While the majority of us are whites of European descent, people of white European descent only account for about 64% of us. Even among whites there are people of Irish, German, English, Italian, and French descent among many others. None of whom share the same culture.

We are known as a melting pot due to our multiracial society. However, our culture has not entirely fused into one culture. American culture is more like a tossed salad with our ingredients mixing, but each of us still retaining a little bit of our own flavor.

Each generation also has a different take on American culture. To the generation that grew up during the cold war era of flags waving and the pledging of allegiance in schools, that is the real American heritage. Though the pledge was not formally adopted by Congress until 1942, so it was really just something their generation grew up with.

My generation grew up in the era of political correctness. To us a large part of being an American means that we should have tolerance and respect for people different from us. We enjoy our freedoms, though we have a slight twinge of guilt that our way of life is supported by sweat shops in third world countries. Compared to the previous generation, we probably think of America more as just the place we grew up than thinking of ourselves as American and proud.

However, if you go back 150 years ago, you would likely encounter a notion of being an American that is completely alien to the Americans alive today. The continent was still rugged and half explored. Life in America was dangerous and unpredictable–parts of it were more like modern day Africa–but the opportunity to go west and stake your claim was a way of life that hasn’t existed before or since. The Stars and Stripes didn’t have 50 stars yet and the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t even a twinkle in Francis Bellamy’s eye.

And yet, there is still a common thread of American-ness. An atmosphere of American-ness that we resonate with.

A common story among Americans who’ve lived abroad for long periods of time is that no matter how “totally immersed” they were or wanted to be in the culture, they would have gone bonkers if they didn’t have another American to hang out with at least some of the time.

It doesn’t even matter if the other American’s beliefs or ethnicity are completely different. A right wing Christian and a stout Atheist will find common ground about how people should behave in foreign countries when the customs are so very different than what they are used to.

I’ve met Korean-Americans in Korea who grew up with Korean-Korean parents and even lived in Korea for several years as a young child who had become American enough that they needed a respite from being totally surrounded by Korean-ness–and sometimes that meant being with this white guy right here.

There’s just a certain aspect of being American that lies beneath the surface. I don’t know for sure, but if I had to name it I think it would be knowing the totality of all the different viewpoints in America. Knowing the ways that we negotiate the differences and still manage to function as a society.

Discovering American-ness abroad

You can’t really, truly know your American-ness without visiting another country. Otherwise you are like a fish in water, you don’t know any different.

Being abroad challenges your ideas about many of the aspects of America that we accept as “unique” on faith.

The first obvious thing that hides in plain site is that citizens of every country have national pride, no matter where they are from or how “bad” we might think their political, social, or economic situation might be. And while they might acknowledge the US is a powerful country, they most certainly don’t think that we are better than them.

Growing up I remember my Dad saying, “I want to see an address in the USA,” when he wanted to find out if something was trustworthy or not. I had a deja vu on my recent trip to Korea when my Korean father-in-law emphatically mentioned looking for a Korean address on something sold by an American company. My instinctive thought was “here’s the US address, isn’t a US address even more reliable than a Korean address?” Obviously in his eyes it was not, in fact the US address was suspect.

We also tend to hold up immigrants coming to America for a better life as a sign of our superiority. The fact is, it happens in lots of countries. Many of the hotels I’ve stayed at in Japan and Korea were staffed by maids from the Philippines. There are even a few Americans who crossed over to North Korea during the war, and arguably found a better living there for themselves and their children than they could have expected in the US.

Is the US a good place to come? Sure. But does it make us unique? No, immigration for a better life is a very common thing in the world.

Trips to Mexico and rural China have made me appreciate the standard of living and cleanliness we enjoy in America, but you do a great disservice to many countries by thinking the rest of the world is backwards, poor, and has it worse off than we do. I work for a Swedish-owned company and they seem to have public holidays every other week. They have something called “paternity leave” that gives men the right to take month(s) off for newborn children. They also seem to have much more liberal paid time off vacation in general. On business trips to Sweden it’s plain to see that Swedes enjoy a very high standard of living.

When it comes to standard of living, there are a great many countries on par with the US. And many of them have outranked America in publications by the United Nations–the U.S. is currently #4 on the Human Development Index.

Many (most?) of the things we think are unique about our country, really are not unique at all. Though I don’t think you can ignore the role the U.S. played in enabling a world where it’s possible for many of the countries that thrive today to do so.

If you’re visiting another modern, developed country you start to notice your American-ness more subtly. There’s just a way of doing things that is different, and the things that stand out are rarely what you think they would be.

The first time I studied abroad in Japan in high school I cleaned the school with the other students at the end of the school day. Even though I was expecting it and knew it was standard practice in Japanese schools, it still bothered me. At first I just thought okay, I’ll humor them. But after a few weeks I was like, “Seriously? Who does this? We hire janitors to do this shit.”

The second time I lived in Japan I slowly noticed that books, cabinets, and cupboards all seemed to open from the left instead of from the right. Antennas on the cell phones were on the right instead of the left. It was as if everything were backwards. It reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons where they ran into trouble in Australia and saluted a toilet rigged to spiral the opposite direction at the US embassy in a moment of longing for America. Identifying with it was funny, but bittersweet.

Even countries like Canada and the UK that I expect to be very similar to the USA, often have subtly different ways of doing things and different hidden scripts for social interactions.

In the large scope of things, none of these differences are really that big of a deal.

However, on a personal level we feel more comfortable around people who have the same experiences as we do. Even if we fall on opposite sides of a particular issue, being with someone who recognizes that it’s an issue at all and what the different viewpoints might be is a source of enormous comfort when you are suddenly put in the middle of a bunch of people who do things completely differently.

What it means to be an American

On a historical level and world stage, America is significant. American culture and the American military have tremendously impacted the world as we know it. Which ironically means that in today’s world we are not as unique as we might think we are in terms of daily living and freedom.

On balance, we are as we believe to be a free people in a free country with economic opportunity available to all.

We value our right to be individuals, and on balance we exercise that right.

However, what really makes those of us living today Americans are the intangibles and hidden scripts. It isn’t eating apple pie, being free, pledging allegiance to the flag, being politically correct, or standing out as a unique individual that make us American. What it means to me to be an American is the fact that we have some shared notion of what people are even talking about when those subjects come up, even if we don’t have the same opinions about them. And it’s not the same notion as what someone from England or China might think about the same subject.

Being an American means we have some shared idea about how people interact with one another, how people behave at work, and “how things are done around here.” Not everyone’s ideas are exactly the same, but on balance we have the same thoughts compared to how Brazilians or Canadians think about life, work, and how things are done.

What really makes us American is not how we are different and unique from the rest of the world or different and unique as individuals, but those thin slices of our lives where we are the same as each other.

Essays like this typically end with a big whoop-to-do and “being an American really is the greatest after all” sentiment. However, I will reveal my Mid-Western roots by simply saying that “it’s different.”

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