Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Strugging to feel American

I've just finished teaching Jhumpa Lahiri's first published work--her collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. I've been teaching this work consistently over the last five years, and I must say that each time I teach this collection I see something different, largely because I'm blessed to have wonderfully bright students who bring different insights and observations into their interpretations of the stories.

And just yesterday morning, Lahiri was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition about "struggling to feel American," describing her parents' disconnection from feeling "American" and Lahiri's own ambivalence with connecting to a sense of American identity.

Although I can understand a bit of what she means, to be honest, I haven't ever really felt that way. And I've been thinking about why that is. Why I actually DO feel very American and why my definition of "American" has always allowed me to feel connected to this phrase and this amorphous ideal while rejecting the standard symbols of what it means to identify as American.

I've never felt patriotic, not really. Nor have I ever really felt "pride" in being American. Not that I've necessarily felt undue shame (although the words "Abu Ghraib" make me feel distinctly embarrassed, saddened, and horrified), it's more like I feel ambivalent. Because on the one hand, America does seem to offer up a lot of promise and hope--it inspires one to "dream" as in to reach the "American" dream. On the other hand, at an early age I immersed myself in learning about the history of race in the U.S., which means I understood the darker underbelly of America and realized that unexamined proclamations of nationalism weren't something I would ever be comfortable with.

And yet.

I've never not identified as American. I have gone through the different iterations of Chinese/Jamaican/Asian but always appended "American" to the end of those. I don't know that I've ever identified as an un-hyphenated American--somehow I've never been comfortable not qualifying my national affiliations. And somehow I always felt like even if others didn't always see the American in me, it was my absolute right to claim America for myself.

So I'm just curious about everyone else out there--do you now or have you ever struggled to feel "American" and/or have you simply taken this for granted--and for the non-Americans in the blogosphere, what is your impression of "Americans" (and I'd love some push-back from our North American neighbors to the north and south as well as our South American counterparts on this issue).

[Side Note: For anyone looking for a good read, I do recommend Lahiri's latest collection Unaccustomed Earth--especially the last three stories that comprise a short story cycle/novella. Of course, of all her works, Interpreter of Maladies remains my favorite; I just find her stories heart wrenching and in some cases even heart breaking. Plus, she's a master prose stylist, and it's just all a good read. Head out to your local library or independent bookstore and pick up a copy--you won't be disappointed.]


dance said...

Never not felt American, despite hyphenation. Part of this is probably growing up in a multicultural environment in California, where there was no one single way to be American.

Unknown said...

(although the words "Abu Ghraib" make me feel distinctly embarrassed, saddened, and horrified) Really! Well I lived, worked, ate, and slept within the walls of Abu Ghraib Prison for a year and never felt embarrased, saddened, horrified - in fact I am proud to have served alongside the soldiers I was with there. I was not a medic but respected the hundreds of medical personnel who worked day and night at the Abu Ghraib Hospital to treat and heal detainees, some of who would like to have killed them. Get over it lady!

CVT said...

Art - you bring a different perspective, but your treatment of that perspective ("Get over it lady!") doesn't really do any justice or invite honest conversation. I would be curious about what you saw/did there, but the way in which you responded doesn't suggest you'd be open to real dialogue, and that is unfortunate.

Anyway - in so many ways, I'm as "American" as can be. In fact, my tendency to speak out and try to educate about all that's wrong with the system is so very American - the fact that I get to do that without fear of political reprisal or arrest is huge, and I appreciate that. So, in spite of how other "Americans" would like to think of me, I know myself to be thoroughly American (for good or bad).

Jennifer said...


I hear you on growing up in CA--I wonder if that is why I never thought twice about my hyphenated status as being legitimately American. I remember distinctly being in High School and waiting outside to use the payphone and there were three of my classmates/friends, who each got on the phone with one of their parents and spoke in Korean, Japanese, and Tagalog and when I spoke to my parents in English they were surprised because they thought I would have a second language (Cantonese/Mandarin) and they thought it was cool that they were fluent in 2 languages. And that was the first time I really felt at a disadvantage that I didn't know Mandarin/Cantonese and that it was COOL to know 2 languages and to have these 2 different heritages--that this is what it meant to be a real American.

Thank you for reminding me that phrases taken on different meanings and significance for different folks. For me, the phrase "Abu Ghraib" is associated with the documented torture that occurred there. But of course, for others it has another resonance since it was a hospital. I think both meanings (and more I'm sure--after all, the Iraqis have a totally different meaning for Abu Ghraib pre-invasion) are valid. But, I also think that it's impossible after the revelations of abuse and torture NOT to hear the words "Abu Ghraib" and associate that with the particular images and meanings related to torture and the worst abuses of American military chain of command breaking down, and a distinct lack of responsibility of the Bush administration and others in the upper-ecehlons of the U.S. Army in terms of a failure of leadership and vision. (For more, you should really retired Army Major-General Anthony Taguba's report).

As for your last phrase "Get over it Lady"--I'm assuming you are a first time reader and commenter to this blog. And am assuming that you did not read the "rules" of this blog that is listed in the right side bar. #2 reads "Please be respectful in your comments"--which "Get over it lady!" is distinctly not. Perhaps if you had omitted the exclamation mark I would have been able to give you the benefit of the doubt, but there is no mistaking the *tone* of disdain and condescension and the distinct lack of wanting respectful dialogue in that phrase.

Which, as CVT notes, leaves me to wonder why you left this comment. Clearly, you wanted to demonstrate that you have a different perspective and knowledge about Abu Ghraib and the people who worked there and its relationship to the war in Iraq that is in addition or separate from the tortures and abuse that has been documented there.

In which case, as CVT said, I would welcome and value your perspective--because if you read through this blog, you will see that I've tried to keep an open mind--to own my own privileged perspective and viewpoint and to acknowledge the limitations of my own knowledge based when I've thought it appropriate. And certainly I would want to know your perspective since it would flesh out a picture of the hospital that the average American reader/viewer does not have access to.

But the phrase "Get over it lady!" besides being dismissive, does not allow for a true dialogue and conversation and suggests that this is not why you came to this site--that you came to "correct" me or to show that your perspective is "right" and mine is "wrong" and quite frankly, I'm not so interested in these kinds of binary distinctions of "right" vs. "wrong" or to be told that I should "get over" something like being sad or ashamed that the U.S. engaged in acts of torture.

So please do come and add to your comment or respond, but please don't come back if you don't want real engagement and respectful dialogue.

Finally CVT, as always thanks for stopping by--and I absolutely agree with you. Speaking truth to power and being able to voice a dissenting opinion is one of the most American things I can imagine any of us doing.

MarieM said...

Have always felt American, though I can see a mainstream and a non-mainstream. The more you talk to the "mainstream" and really listen, the more you realize how marginalized they can feel at times too.

It's odd because I was thinking today that the traveling I have done has actually made me feel very acutely American--and to value that even more intensely than I might if I hadn't been overseas so much.

Jennifer said...

I couldn't agree with you more--traveling has always made me feel more "American"--even when traveling in the U.S.--I think I appreciate the vastness of the U.S. terrain and just how different various regions are.

And of course traveling abroad makes me realize just how parochial and small my sphere is.