What does it mean to be an American?

Subliminal Signification

One of my favorite shows growing up was “Liberty’s Kids,” an animated series about the American Revolution starring the voices of Walter Cronkite, Billy Crystal and Sylvester Stallone. The selling point of that show, for me, was the theme song, “Through My Own Eyes,” sung by the ever-so-dreamy Aaron Carter and Kayla Hinkle. Today, I can’t listen to more than a minute of the song without cringing at how bad it is, but it offered me a special insight at a young age — the importance of understanding life through one’s experience.

Through my own eyes, I grew up with a bourgeois fantasy of being American. I associated America with typical images of outdoor summer barbecue parties with red gingham tablecloths, the starred and striped flag and fireworks. I imagined sleepovers, department stores and parents attending PTA meetings.

But that life wasn’t mine. I lived in a tiny townhouse with jade Buddha statues in every corner my entire life. Each morning, I woke up to the sound of my mother praying to my late grandfather’s altar in my room, the sharp smell of incense filling my nose. In the afternoons, as my mom cooked, she played Nhu Quynh, a famous Vietnamese folk singer. Sometimes, she would watch “Paris by Night,” a Vietnamese musical variety show on VHS, and we would spend hours judging the choreography and singing of the artists. Our family shopped at Goodwill and the flea market more than I was comfortable admitting to my friends. But many of my friends were also Asian, which made it slightly easier to feel like I fit in. Still, I never quite felt like my family was “American” enough.

This, of course, created feelings of otherness when growing up. In elementary school, I looked at my friends’ Lunchables and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with envy, but a secret happiness filled me whenever my mom packed me fried rice with lap xuong or Chinese sausage (although today I prefer marinated tofu, as I am a vegetarian). Whenever we recited the Pledge of Allegiance in middle school, I would replace the word “God” with “Buddha.” I sat in classrooms learning about the history of white Americans, wondering what my family’s place was in the American narrative. I felt it a cruelty to force me at my young age into half-baked existential crises about religion, nationalism and ethnicity. But funnily enough, as I grew up, uncertainty around these matters only stretched.

In high school, the subversive in me grew (although my shy tendencies belied this growth).  In the writing club I helped found, my friends and I spent Friday afternoons standing on tables  reciting Allen Ginsberg and talking shit about American imperialism. I rejected my family’s religion, considering it the opium of the masses. I called myself a “liberal feminist,” a term I am hesitant to use today because of implications around Western hegemony and liberalism.

At UC Berkeley, I am supposed to be cynical when standing knee-deep in the effects of historical inequality and underrepresentation, and it is expected of me to question the effects of American nationalism. But I have become slightly skeptical about my bombastic rejection of nationalism and the United States, partly because of school and partly because of my family.

That is not to say nationalism and the United States have not been and are not problematic. To ignore the past and current prejudices and inequalities would be doing myself and my readers a disservice. To overlook the country’s history of war, terror and discrimination would be a horrific crime. American exceptionalism has been poison to so many communities, rationalizing everything from slavery to stealing land from the American Indians to modern warfare. I grew up with the wavering impression that the United States is a free country — “nuoc tu do,” as my parents would say. But my family has navigated America through the story that it tells, the narrative of hard work and reward, only to have our histories quieted in the mainstream and only to be demanded gratitude for our coexistence here.

I can’t appreciate freedom that is used to motivate self-interest and marginalization, one enshrined in individualistic rhetoric or uncritical patriotism. But what I do know is that I appreciate the diversity in the country — the salad-bowl model of diversity, if you will. It’s nowhere near perfect, of course, if it can create ethnic tensions in an elementary school kid. And, not to mention, a lot of deliberate attempts at diversity have also resulted in the tragic tokenization of minorities.

My parents remind me how, despite taking away so much from them, the United States gave them a space for possibility from a war-torn home, especially for me and my brother. The notion of freedom is hopeful, especially one that inspires collectivity and empathy. The idea of a nation reminds us that there is more to our existence than just ourselves, that there are ideas and conditions worth preserving — although this can be dangerous, and again, rationalize horrific things. It can, most importantly, remind us to listen to each other in order to have a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of freedom.

So what does it mean to be an American? Through my own eyes, it means hope. But to maintain hope and inclusion in a flawed system is in and of itself a behemoth.


Stacey Nguyen writes the Friday blog about the cultural significance of everyday visual and verbal language. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @staceytnguyen.