“You are not very American.”
I paused when someone said this to me recently.
“It’s a compliment, you know,” he said.
I don’t know how to respond to that. What does that mean?
A very weird part of living abroad and being American is being American. If that makes any sense. At all.
“Americans! Bah! Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola.” (A French cousin said this to me. A lot. Thankfully he didn’t know about my Cheerios fixation.)
“Americans take up too much space.”
“Americans are ignorant, kind of stupid.”
“You are not very American …”
My paternal grandparents, French Basques, immigrated to the US in the early 1900s. My grandpa was a sheepherder and miner. My grandma was a maid. My maternal grandparents were children of Norwegian immigrants. My grandpa was a farmer. My grandma, too.
I grew up taking Basque dancing lessons and making chorizos in the garage. I ate lefse and Basco beans, learned how to make kringle and (later) Picon punches and homemade hooch. (Yeah, you KNOW you want that recipe). No, we did not have a still in our backyard, though we had an old wine press.
My friends, instead of Basque dancing lessons, went to Greek, Italian, and German festivals. We all seemed to have relatives from far away who liked to give sloppy cheek kisses and too-hard pinches.
I love peanut butter and baseball movies; I cry when I hear The Star Spangled Banner. I know how to dance the Texas two-step and swing, salsa and merengue. When my girls were babies, I used to sing them The Gambler and Stand By Me because I didn’t remember the words to any other songs.
My heart aches when I watch how senseless violence and shootings are so commonplace that my nieces have to go through “shooting drills” at school. I am horrified with super-sized anything (really … there is such a thing as too many fries) and find the idiosyncracies of my country too absurd for fiction, both tragic and funny as hell.
I grew up in the perfume of sagebrush and snow-capped mountains, and every summer we visited my grandma’s farm in North Dakota … fields of golden sunflowers, flax, wheat. Flat, flat, flat. In North Dakota you can watch your dog run away for three days.
I’m an expat. Sure. Visions of Hemingway and Stein changing the world with their words while getting stoned over bottles of French wine come to mind.
I’m not that kind of expat. I fell in love with a Colombian, and we decided to build our life here. I spend my days chasing after two little girls who, by the way, don’t like peanut butter (I’ve utterly failed to inculcate them with American-ness 101.) They barely take notice of the Cheerios (from my Panama contact) in their bowls. I’ve actually stopped giving them Cheerios. They don’t appreciate that unsinkable taste.They’d rather eat empanadas.
My oldest speaks English with a Spanish lilt and the little one definitely is going down the expressive, gesticulating Latina route. They’re both Colombian Americans … two nationalities, two passports, two cultures, no peanut butter.
What is American?
Maybe my five-year-old said it best the other day.
A: Mom, you know that thing where you won’t let me wear a bikini or get my ears pierced?
A: *accusatory tone* It’s because you’re American, isn’t it?
Me: *silent for a bit* I guess it is.
A: *shrugs and walks away*
Yep. I’m American. (My daughters don’t realize it yet, but so are they — peanut butter failings aside.) And, from far away, this 4th, I’ll celebrate with my annual burger, beer, and a slice of watermelon. What could be more American than that?
Nationality, culture, ethnicity, religion … identity. It’s a loaded thing to be called something. And I understand that so much of how we view other cultures, how we come up with our sweeping generalizations, comes from the media, past experiences, and expectation. (Honestly, I don’t know a single Colombian who doesn’t cringe when somebody makes the typical “cocaine” joke.)
But in every country, there are pockets of grace and tragedy; places of shame and joy. I kind of think there’s a little “American” in everybody because “my America”, the one I love and believe in, was built on a dream, a fight, ideals, intentions, failings … hope. That’s what makes me American.
So, instead of deciding how someone is, discover how someone is. Be surprised. However, if you insist on making assumptions, at the end of the day, all I ask you to do is hand over the Cheerios. Colombia’s great failing is the lack of Cheerios.
I know. How do I survive?
Here’s a list of “American” books I love, love, love. All of these capture snapshots and vignettes of “Americanness.” Jigsaw-puzzle pieces of culture, adaptation, rampant madness and more. What books would you add? How do you define your “Americanness”, Canadianness, Colombianness, Englishness, Israeliness, South Africanness, Austrailianness, Chineseness … wherever you’re from?