It seems like most of my life, I’ve been asked what it’s like to be Arab or Palestinian or Lebanese or Muslim. I’ve even been asked questions about being Latino and Jewish, based on my appearance I assume. However, I can’t remember anyone ever asking me what it is like to be an American, although I’ve spent all my life being one. I think there is an assumption that just by being born American I am privileged, privileged by the international power my country has. While I’ve recognized the relative truth of that, I’m well aware that the US is not paradise on Earth for so many of its people. Watch any Michael Moore documentary or just go hang out an urban hospital emergency room eavesdropping on conversations—what doesn’t kill you, will make you question the meaning of life and death. And never mind that so much US Middle East policy pains me.
But on a more personal level, “what’s it like to be an American” is not even a question I would ask myself about myself, although I would ask it of others: I think I’ve always felt quasi American because of my childhood. In the Midwest, where I spent my early years, I didn’t have a Little House on the Prairie homesteading heritage—and not just one but both my parents had accents, didn’t know a twice baked potato from a Tater Tot, weren’t rugged and outdoorsy like the Marlboro Man or Robert Redford and thought camping was something people had to do if they couldn’t afford roadside motels. That childhood reasoning as to why we were not ‘real’ Americans, no matter how much my parents would tell us differently, has somehow always stayed with me, compounded by grown up examples that involve words like terrorism, Muslims, 9/11.
However, this fall at the Frankfurt Central Library, when US Consulate Public Affairs Officer Jeanine Collins introduced me as an American author—just plain American, not a hyphenated American—for the first time I felt that I was indeed an American. I was not just an American because a representative of the US government was introducing me (although that was the first time I’d ever been introduced by an American as an American), but because in that instant I realized that the US was the country that can claim and that I can claim, the country that has educated me, given me my voice to speak for all my other identities, let me question what it is to be American, and let me praise its ingenuity, innocence and hope and criticize its darker sides without punishment. There in Frankfurt, I felt that I had come home, that I had been validated as a real American, not just by the US Consulate but finally by myself.
Here’s a clip of that talk: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7o7s6QssY10
My children are British…but have never lived there and we had a lively debate about what nationality they feel akin to. Living in the UAE, they could never adopt the nationality of the country they feel most at home in. Your post was interesting as a backdrop to this and because of the many assumptions we make about parentage, culture and upbringing.
I suspect that with so many people experience life outside their country, sometimes for years, and with the intermarriages of families and businesses the concept of nationality may shift greatly in the next couple of generations. Which probably will not be a bad thing.