Friday, November 29, 2013

Nationality and the Most Important TED Talk I Have Ever Seen

Despite my previous plans to write about Shakespeare today, I'm going to reorder my posts (because I'm away from my apartment and the notes I wrote up for the Shakespeare post). Instead, I'm going to talk about nationality - mainly, how I'm struggling with this idea of being an American.

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.
There were so many things wrong in this three or four minute segment that I saw that I couldn't even handle myself and almost mouthed off to the TV in the break room. I watch TV so infrequently now that when I see shows like this, I get shocked that people still say these things on air. Being immersed in the world of Tumblr which generally critiques such modes of thinking and viewing celebrity culture from a far different vantage than what's presented on shows like ET makes it all the more shocking when I do see things like this. Then I being to wonder: is this the basic perception of celebrity culture that most Americans have? Is their view of people who are overweight or beautiful in a "non-traditional" way similar to the beauty contestants? Is fifty really considered old and are we really that vapid overall? I say no. I cannot believe that what this show purports is really what the majority of Americans believe. But then I overhear conversations people have about such topics and I begin to wonder if my way of thinking is more in the minority than I thought.

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.
Let's be honest - the whole idea of nations states makes perfect sense to me but at the same time I find them very, very strange. Arbitrary lines suddenly mean so much and add cultural identity while stipulating what a person is or isn't. I've grown up with this idea, I understand it, but it's just so strange. Because of internet communication, I can easily connect with people thousands of miles away and understand how much I have in common with them despite the distance and different culture. But at the same time, I see how strong certain differences are and how the US is not as global as it thinks it is, being very much set in a distinct mentality of... well, for a lack of a better word, "Americanness." I am certainly part of that mentality but there are moments when it's clear to me that I don't fit it very well at all.
This becomes most clear to me when talking about living abroad. I myself am planning to do this in the near future and my friend and roommate Sarah spent last year living abroad in Russia. She's been dealing with assumptions that she's still in Russia or has all of her friends in that country now while trying to express how her perceptions of America have become nuanced from living elsewhere. She feels a little like she has no other choice but to go back to living overseas because people have written her off as still being there in a sense (I'm summarizing a conversation we had so if I get this wrong, Sarah, kick me). While I've never spent longer than two weeks at a time being overseas, I feel a similar disconnect - not as strong, certainly - but a perception of being not quite here, perhaps partly due to my own thinking. I spend a lot of time online hearing and seeing opinions expressed by people living in Europe and may have developed what some people would call "European sensibilities." This of course assumes that there is only one sort of sensibility that defines all of Europe, which is not correct, but does highlight how the US separates itself from its allies on the other side of the pond. There's us and there's them - that's how nation-states work. But what happens when you get people like me who dream of living abroad and likely working there, or people like Sarah who have lived abroad and are now treated differently because of it? We get written off into this sort of ex-pat grouping that isn't accurate, but occurs because of our limited idea of how to define people who pass between borders, who cross country lines frequently, who live in one place but dream in another. I only have very restricted means to discuss this, but after hearing a panel of students at the U who had studied abroad, I feel like there's a great deal of misunderstanding that these students go through when returning, that they have a very hard time discussing their experiences with anyone else. How do we deal with being Americans abroad, understanding that we have the privilege to go overseas like this in ways that other countries don't? How do we respectfully engage in the culture without being too much of a tourist but understanding that we are Americans and are coming in with a very specific understanding of the world? How do we return back to the States then and try to explain what we've seen and experienced, while trying to deal with American exceptionalism and ideas of not being patriotic or American enough? I truly have no idea.

 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.
There you have it. I can't trace my ancestors back to the Mayflower. I don't even know when my great-grandparents from Italy - who I have the most info about - came over, or from where. Most likely because once they got here, they put the past behind them and started anew. They likely never figured that it would be important to remember their family tree in precise detail so that when their great-granddaughter, when faced with people who could draw their heritage from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Joseph Stalin or bank robbers in the Midwest, would wonder who in the world she were related to. I've tried those things, but I can't get anywhere before having to pay money because my parents can only go so far back - they don't know anything about their great-grandparents - and there's just no record of them. And if I did know, what would it matter? I come from a long line of European middle-class or lower-class individuals who were most likely peasants. When I was younger and stuck in the Disney-princess mode where people always found out they were secretly heirs to some throne, I thought this might be possible. The film Anastasia gave me a ridiculous amount of hope. But there are only so many royal family lines and, to be honest, I don't think I really want to be connected to any of them. Besides, now I can sing Lorde's "Royals" at the top of my lungs. And if I did know my ancestry, what could it really tell me about myself? I grew up in the United States - that defines the culture I was raised in. And yet I still feel dissociated from that. I grew up eating lasagne and homemade pasta for Thanksgiving dinner - as we did this year - rather than turkey. I have a strong sense of wanderlust. And I really can't shake off the feeling that Scotland feels all too familiar to me... (And we're not even getting into the fact that I love snow and mountains despite having been born in one of the flattest, least snowiest states in the US). The point is that my idea of my own Americanness is so warped that I long to find answers through some other means - in this case, heritage - even though there are likely no answers to be found there. But when categories are defined between Americans and Europeans and I find myself having more in common with Europeans, I struggle to clear up the confusion it causes.

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.

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