Sunday, September 19, 2010

embracing the white american in me (or at least reconciling with it)

Something I've been thinking some about lately is the whole idea of being okay with being American. I was talking to someone I know recently, mostly about her experience in India and mine in Romania, what coming back was like, and I mentioned how when I first came back from Colombia I hated 'America,' didn't want to be American or have anything to do with anything American. I have since reconciled with it (well, most days) and she said she was still working on it. And since then I've been thinking about the whole process.

On the one hand, there are still plenty of things about this culture and my government that frustrate me, things with which I want no association. But there are things about Christianity that make me feel the same way--there are plenty of people who never become Christians for this reason, but I'm not going to denounce what I believe because other people represent it badly. Among other reasons, it would just be bad logic. The analogy here isn't perfect. I don't believe in 'America' (usually prefer to say the United States, being so close to South America--I don't think the distinction will be as important from Europe) the way I believe in God, nor am I a follower of the US in the sense of being a follower of Jesus. And of course American is such a broad idea anyway. In some ways I identify more as Southern and, as they say, this is the mixing bowl/salad bowl/melting pot. But there are absolutely ways I'm very American and I could list them but they don't really further the point.

And on the other, it's very easy to go somewhere and come back hating all things American (or non-American, depending on your experience), but there is an attitude I've noticed with it--both in myself and in others--that's akin to people who are really stuck up about English humor vs. American humor (not saying having a preference makes you stuck up--it's the attitude with which you go about it), or people who like only books that are considered literature or are in the classic canon vs. fantasy or popular fiction or whatever. This, I would like to say, does only appear to be part of it and there are legitimate reasons for disliking or not agreeing with some aspects of our culture, but I feel like this is an attitude it often swings to before (hopefully) leveling out. STIM would call it red-lining. And that was absolutely me.

Combine all this with a now more-resolved issue of identity to be called: ethnic envy. I came to college confused as heck. Grew up in the rural, white South. Lived with a black family for a few years. Found out a couple years ago that, while I have no claim to the culture, I'm ''ethnically'' half-French (whatever that means, but to be more precise, of the Mediterranean variety)--this sort of thing has led to lots of questions over the years and a few conversations with strangers that began in some other language. But as the answer comes from a whole history that was absent for twenty years and I knew nothing about it/could only speculate until two years ago, it feels a little illegitimate.

And on top of all this, a love of 'culture' which seems to exclude me simply by the virtue of being a white American (the important word, of course, being seems). I've seen related, similar things happen to my roommate: a half-Colombian who is light skinned and light eyed, who ''doesn't look Hispanic." Or a friend from middle school who is ethnically Korean, second generation, and only speaks English, and here the identity issue comes. So what you come to the surface with (or at least I did) is a predisposition toward dropping my own 'non-culture' in favor of ones I like better or maybe identify with more strongly. But the fact is, regardless of what my country does and how I feel about it, I am a white American and there is value in that. Or better, it stands equally with others in its own way of pointing us to our true country. Does that make sense?

I went to Romania with all of this. And I don't remember when exactly, but early on in the trip one of my friends and I were having a conversation and she said something to the effect of it being no accident that she was born in Romania, is Romanian, and that there was a reason God did it that way. I found out later that she was making an entirely different point saying it, but what I understood, what stuck with me led to this. I am American not by some accident, it being as worth as much as being born anywhere/anything else. And he'll use that as surely as he'll use the abilities he gave me.

And when I step outside of the issues of politics and policies and maybe of certain cultural values, I see that it becomes something like a little kid wishing she had brown hair instead of red (although to be fair, I think it it's at least as much an internal thing as external). And in our values, once we start to examine what are ours because they are our culture's/family's/religion's, I think we do have some freedom to choose. The issue then is stereotyping, and carrying the stamp of something you don't want to be represented by and by no means is that limited to whiteness nor is it easily prevented. The remaining response is to represent Christ well from whatever the background and know that those things aren't mutually exclusive. In Romania I'll learn things and bring things.



  1. I can definitely relate. I have a streak of love in me for anything foreign, and sometimes it makes me unappreciative of the culture here. I have friends who are far, far more patriotic than I am; while I love being an American, love living here (for the most part), I don't think we're the best country EVER and that every other place in the world is automatically inferior to us.

    However, strangely enough, I'm never more patriotic than when I've been out of the country for a while and I come back and get to re-experience all the things I love about being here (or at least the comfort I feel knowing the language, knowing what's expected of me, etc.). I love leaving, and I love coming back.

  2. it's funny you say that. i felt like that when i came back from romania, glad i could wear a baggy t-shirt again, glad i was somewhere i knew--like you said, knowing what's expected of you, that sort of thing). and stuffed crust pizza from pizza hut. sounds disgusting, but you wouldn't believe how much i missed it.

    you're definitely right. a friend who spent a semester in england was telling me about how living there made her more patriotic, made her love her country more. the same with me. and it's a wonderful way to put it: "i love leaving, and i love coming back."