As summer is coming to an end, I’ve just returned from an international program at a Scottish University. The students were mostly Europeans, a few students from the Middle East and East Asia, and a few Americans like myself. There was an obvious lack of representation from any African or Latin American countries and the majority was western European, but to an extent it was still quite diverse.
Curious as to where everyone came from, what language they spoke at home, and about who they were, I found myself asking about nationality, as was everyone else. However, before I got there, I didn’t really think about how I was to identify myself.
Here, in the States, the idea of an ‘American’ nationality is essentially meaningless. An American identity alone does not tell us anything about a person’s phenotype, or religion, race or ethnicity. The term American does however seem to carry the assumption of some type of patriotism or loyalty to what is consumerist America. So usually I don’t use American as a description or identification for myself. It has little cultural relevance to me so I choose to spare myself its aftertaste and leave it out.
But in the Euro environment I was in, nationality was what I was asked about. The idea of race, the usual classifier in the States, seemed somewhat non-existent or at least irrelevant. People asked what country you’re from and that needed no further explanation. You were Italian, or French, or German, or Russian. And even with the Americans, there were no further questions.
And now I’m wondering if my acquaintances asked no further questions about race, or ethnicity because they’re used to nationalities that explain themselves, or because ‘American’ really was a substantive label in their minds. Did they see me as having some type of pseudo proximity to American pop culture? Or picture my family in some type of cloned suburban home with a white picket fence..? …with an American flag out front?
Truth is, I do live in the United States. But I still feel that the word American, no matter the context or associations, doesn’t convey very much about who I am, or my life, or what I think, or my family and our traditions. So in terms of describing myself, I still think its pretty useless, but I have come to realize that even if people abroad using the word may not really know what the lives of most Americans are like, that it does have a meaning beyond U.S. borders.