What does it mean to be an American?

I can’t help but feel this period in history is significant, if only for what is yet to come of this global political climate. Each day I read the news, a mix of positive and negative connotations blurs through my subconscious: paragraphs of words about people far away, words about events that happened when I was asleep. Heavy paragraphs and words that seem void of emotion, but carry all the weight of a freight train. These articles, paragraphs, and collection of words are the paint of perspective, and as much as they are overwhelming, they are also equally so liberating.

Across this spectrum of bold headlines and addicting scrolling, I began to wonder about identity. What determines how we choose to identify where we originate from? What makes us decide to disassociate from our birthplace? What parts of our culture make us proud and content and what parts are like fresh wounds withheld from time and space needed to heal? I started to wonder about my own identity and what it means to me to be defined as an American.

I fight a growing sense of dissatisfaction and disbelief of what I read happening each day. As I read about the United States and how its citizens are represented on a global stage, a feeling of repulsion sinks into my stomach. Society greatly shaped my perspective of what it meant to be an American as I grew up. What is around me now is contradicting: the qualities of inclusiveness and diversity espoused to the identity of being an American are the same qualities I feel are under attack.

One afternoon as I walked back to my Chicago apartment, I passed a Mexican restaurant. As I walked by, I searched for a menu to measure how authentic it would be compared to offerings in Atlanta (I’ve notoriously had a difficult time finding authentic Mexican food north of Virginia). However, I was disappointed, as the choices fell into the category of American-Mexican food and not the authentic dishes I craved.

But even though I continued on and left the food behind me, the restaurant didn’t leave my mind. As I continued to ponder on what it means to be American, I couldn’t get this restaurant, and countless others like it, out of my mind. One of the most unique observations of my travels is how culturally homogeneous so many countries are. From my experience living in Europe and visiting India, the difference of cultural diversity from my American experience was impossible to miss. Each country was mostly shaped by its dominant ethnic group. To see a Nicaraguan in Croatia or a Swede in India would be a memorable encounter because it was outside of preconceived expectations. But in America, I board a New York City, Chicago, or Washington DC subway, and I always remain pleasantly surprised at how unique and different all the passengers are.

But what of the Mexican restaurant? If my train rides reflect this unique cultural identity, what is the significance of the Mexican restaurant and why can’t I forget it?

Suddenly, I realize perhaps American culture is several shards of all other cultures that assimilate here. Instead of the restaurant being an imitation of the real thing, what if it is as real and independent of an experience as the original? Instead of being a clone or a derivative, what if they are their own original craft and subculture? In a way, they are mostly unique – many of the fusions of culture, from food to celebrations, and architecture to film are only found in this sort of combination here.

These pieces of foreign culture are transplanted seeds, taken from their native soil and planted into a new environment. It requires adaption and perhaps creativity too. But these pieces of culture, whether they are motivated to be imitations or not, are created from a place of love and genuine human connection. They stem from a desire to celebrate who we are and where we come from. Furthermore, they offer an opportunity to share these things with others and to pass along the memories and experiences to others in the hopes that they too will see the world from a different perspective, if only for a passing moment.

As I continue to read past another day of headlines, I feel hopeful knowing this spirit of America, although challenged today, remains and exists. In a city like Chicago, it would almost be impossible to miss this range of diversity. While some choose to wrap words of hate and fear around the red, white, and blue stripes of the American flag, I try to remain mindful to keep this flag closer to me too, and wrap it around my values of love and compassion for others, and what it means to me to be an American in this political era.

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