I've discussed before my confusion on this descriptor, and in light of recent events, I realize that my difficulties with this are growing. After seeing The Hunger Games and discussing with my friend Paulina how different American sensibilities and issues with violence and environmentalism are from those in Germany, this has become more clear. With all of the Black Friday ads and my frustration that Black Friday even exists, coupled by a whole "Why do we sing the National Anthem before sporting events?" and "Why do we have a Pledge of Allegiance and why did we say it every day in elementary school?" considerations I've mentally argued about for the past few days, my idea of how weird the US is is just growing stronger. Not to mention that I caught a section of a TV show called Entertainment Tonight while in the break room at Target the other night. This show is one of those celebrity news shows that recaps current events in the "world of celebs" and generally gives me hives. The segment I saw especially bothered me as it discussed some beauty competition where the man orchestrating the event said he wouldn't accept overweight or "ugly" people because that's just not what beauty is in America, one contestant said he would never date an overweight woman because women like that weren't attractive, a female contestant said she got plastic surgery to feel better about herself, and the anchor the show summed it all up to tell us not to worry, older people participated in this competition as the oldest contestant was fifty years old.
I have long since decided that the ideological nature of what it means to be an American is something I don't identify with very well and don't support. I've been aware of this for a while. What I'm beginning to sense is that more ideas of what being Americans means don't apply to me as well.
I do find a strange sort of comfort in hearing other people talk about Americans. Getting a different perspective, from friends abroad and various internet discussions helps me try and redefine nationalistic categories. While listening to the Chris Hardwick's interview with Tom Hiddleston (which I highly recommend listening to if you're a Hiddleston fan; it's delightful), Mr. Hiddleston mentioned the differences he sees in how Americans versus Europeans discuss family ancestry. Americans seem so capable of tracing their heritage back to other parts of the world and having a specific understanding of where their family came from (the idea of "my great-great-great-great grandfather came over on the Mayflower and..." etc.) while Europeans, who have generally lived in the same area of the world for centuries draw a blank. Yes, they know where their grandparents and great-grandparents lived, but after that it gets rather muddled. I found this conversation strangely comforting because I've long had this feeling about other Americans (especially from my friend Kevin, who somehow knows he's about six or seven European nationalities while still claiming to be a "mutt") while I myself seem to have the assumed European approach to this. Here is a basic understanding of my heritage:
- My grandfather on my father's side grew up in Pennsylvania and was a first-generation Italian-American. My great-grandparents had an arranged marriage and met for the first time here in the US after coming from Italy. Where in Italy, you ask? I think it was the northern area. But my father seems to think it was Naples? But for some reason I thought I once heard that they were from Florence? So I really have no idea.
- My grandmother on my father's side grew up in the Midwest. She was Irish, Dutch, and possibly English. And maybe German? I know nothing more than that.
- My mother's family is even more vague. My grandfather's surname was German. My mother remembers seeing or hearing about a painting of an American Indian woman in someone's household who might have married into our family, but we have no idea who she married or who she was. Where my relatives came from, where they lived before they lived in Indiana... not a bloody clue.
- In my heart, I dream that I am Scottish, because my mad love for that area of the world makes little sense otherwise.
Fortunately, I'm growing used to confusion. And also fortunately, I saw the most important TED talk I have ever seen in my life in my managment class on Wednesday. Take a look:
I regret never having heard of Chimamanda Adichie before, because this is brilliant. This takes on so many of the issue floating around in my brain - issues with writing and storytelling, nationality, race, culture, stereotyping, communication - it's perfect. Absolutely perfect (not to mention it's given me exactly what I need to frame my endeavors of study in grad school). It also reminds me of Studs Terkel, a writer I first encountered in my intro to Cultural Studies class. I adored his writing because he went around the US, interviewed people, and wrote down their stories. It was a great way to break through the idea of a single story, of breaking through a single idea of what living in the US meant. And when I get all confused and boggled about things like this, its reassuring to see that there is more to being an American, a writer, a human, than what is often expressed.