So, today, in my seventh form lesson, I was asked if I was a real American. Wow. What was intended as an innocent question started to make my head reel with the answers and possibilities to what that question could mean. Now, I know that what they were intending to ask was if I was Native American – they had just come from their geography lesson where they were learning about North America. But, the way it was asked, “are you a REAL American?” totally captivated my brain.
For my students, I gave a short(ish) answer. “I think you are asking if I am Native American. No. Native Americans – also called Indians (surprisingly, this distinction helped them understand the difference between “real” and “native” quite easily) are the ones you are learning about and they are the people that have always been in America. I am not a Native American, but, I am a REAL American. And my friends are real Americans. In America, most people immigrated and settled there. My ancestors (definition of the words ancestors inserted here) come from Ireland and Germany and who knows where else, but I am a real American. My friend's ancestors come from Korea, but she is still a real American. Americans come from all over the world.” When I got off of my “real American” soap box, I think they kinda got it – or maybe I just gave them a really long-winded answer when all I needed to say was, “nope, I'm not an Indian.”
But, then, throughout the rest of the day the question stayed with me. What is a real American? How do I define myself as an American? Because I am 100% real American. And how is my idea of that being affected by this experience – living in a completely different country and culture?
Some of it is definitely geography – I was born in Virginia, so I am American. My parents and grandparents were all born on U.S. soil, so I am American. But there is so much more to it than that.
I think it is a mindset. To be American is a way of thinking, an attitude, a frame of mind. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness - isn't that kinda what defines Americans? We believe in these things so strongly, that they have shaped our national definition.
I have every opportunity I want set before me. I am living in a country where girls can't go to restaurants and have to be careful about socializing with boys. And I come from a place where a woman might be the next president. I have gotten to choose every step, every path I have taken with my life. And when I return from here and choose the next path to take, I can literally do anything I want. Anything.
I am idealistic. “No” and “because” are never legitimate answers to my questions if I believe they shouldn't be. I get to rock the boat and try and change the world. And, even more importantly, I believe I can.
There are things I just don't understand because I am American – and I will never be able to truly appreciate them. I have never had to live through the pain and turmoil that is part of the very recent history of the people I currently live with. I don 't really understand what it is to struggle. My life has been so easy, comparatively, it is a joke. I am privileged, simply because of where I was born. And even now, I am living through the day to day struggles of a developing country with a time limit. I leave after 2 years. That is not the case for the people I am working and living with. This is their life.
I am free to have all kinds of thoughts about myself and my country. I can think and choose and say whatever I want. I can be the biggest patriot out there – or advertise how bad I think America is. I can be somewhere in the middle. I can question the choices of my bosses and my nation's leaders. And, if I don't like them, I can stand up and say something. Not everyone in the world has that privilege. And I view it as a god given right.
My definition of self – and what being American is has definitely been affected by being here. How could it not? I see how incredibly lucky I am. I see how naively egotistical I am. I think I am becoming a better American by being here. I know I'm becoming a better person.
But here's what keeps my mind reeling – if I were to ask any of my friends or family this question – what is a real American – their answer would be different. And still completely true and 100% American. Because the definition of each of us is also the definition of American. There is a foundation we share, but we all have our own experiences and beliefs and challenges that have shaped us and our view of our nationality. So, that brings me back to the beginning - what is a REAL American? And how can that ever be truly answered?