The Unbearable Lightness of Being American

I’ve lived in the United States for over ten years now, though my citizenship won’t be available for another three (long story; ask me sometime). I don’t stop to think about it too much; I know I’ll pass my naturalization exam with flying colors. What does come across my mind occasionally is the question: what does it mean to be American?

Certainly it doesn’t merely mean knowing the accidents of American history and existence. There are things you can ignore—fried butter, Harley-Davidson, Viet Nam era student protests—as white noise in the data, but there is still a there to being American. There’s a je ne sais quoi, some might say, but I disagree. The whole concept to being American is so simple, it’s frightening.

It’s about Liberty: the kind that allows you to do as your conscience tells you; the kind that makes you face the consequences of your actions; the kind that doesn’t protect you from your own mistakes.

There is, however, an even more powerful freedom that this Liberty offers all Americans, immigrants and natural-born alike. Here’s a clue, from Max Brooks’ World War Z in the words of a (thinly veiled) Howard Dean as he recounts his time as vice president under (an equally thinly veiled) Colin Powell:

I was pointing to them, shouting and gesturing with the passion I’m most famous for. “We need a stable government, fast!” I kept saying. “Elections are great in principle but this is no time for high ideals.”

The president was cool, a lot cooler than me. Maybe it was all that military training … he said to me, “This is the only time for high ideals because those ideals are all that we have. We aren’t just fighting for our physical survival, but for the survival of our civilization. We don’t have the luxury of old-world pillars. We don’t have a common heritage, we don’t have a millennia of history. All we have are the dreams and promises that bind us together. All we have … [struggling to remember] all we have is what we want to be.

American existence is freedom from ethnographic baggage, if you choose to do so. As in immigrant, this is an exhilarating opportunity, and I am not alone. Listen to our stories, but most of all, listen to us when we start telling you about how we wouldn’t be anywhere close to the horizontal and vertical mobility we enjoy in this country.

If I had stayed in the Philippines with my biology degree, my mother would’ve broken her back trying to fund med school. Or, she could’ve dropped dead from the strain of working 60 hours a week here and living a life of self-denial, such that I wouldn’t have been able to finish and, well, who knows what I would’ve done. How many immigrants would tell you today: “I wouldn’t have gone anywhere back home.”

For an American born and raised in America, this freedom is an unbearable lightness. The story of natural born Americans is the search for identity. In this context, one can view the caricatural search for self-esteem and self-actualization in a fairer light. Europeans sneer at how Americans of Irish descent (and of not) celebrate St. Patrick’s day. Cultural celebrations of Old World customs reach comical proportions, and there is a reductive quality to the way natural born Americans pick and choose cultural aspects of their heritage. On its face it seems disrespectful. What does a natural born American of Irish descent know about the Irish’s struggle for survival during the great potato famine? Should he bear the weight of IRA’s terrorism?

Consider the Stuff White People Like blog in this light. It’s been called a damning critique of yuppie hipsterism, but more than that, it is the story of how Americans try to find or build their identity. I want to tell my American friends: by all means, go to the country of your lineage. Visit it. Take it in, whether it’s Warsaw or Prague, but remember: being American means you don’t have to worry about what it means to be Polish, or Czech.

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