I have found It a little bit strange Pondering just what we mean when we talk about "American culture." It's brought me back in time a bit, so to speak, to when 1 first arrived here in Daejeon, South Korea some 17 months ago-totally new, a little overwhelmed, and feeling very American. After becoming adjusted to my new life and job teaching here at this university, I could not help but find myself spending a lot of time thinking about the home I had left-the United States of America-and the People I left behind there. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said "You never step in the same river twice," and he was right : the America I will someday return to will not be the same America that I left.
What follows in this article Is a brief attempt to grapple with America, because I believe that one should never really trust an American to tell you the truth about America. i say this not because Americans are deceitful, for we are as honest as anyone else in the world. On the contrary, 11ell you this because, as 1 have often said in my classes, America is a big country and there arc a lot of different kinds of people who Inc there. My voice is just that-my own American voice, and with it comes all that has shaped me as an American.
This is why I say that one should never trust an American to tell the truth about America. The fact is that rarely is there an American who knows the whole truth about his or her country. America is too big and there are just too many people from all different cultures, races, lifestyles, ages, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds to get a coherent, universal answer on what America is out of an individual.
Though our nation is young, Americans have made a huge impact on the modern world, for good and bad, and il can be a lot to take in. Each of us Americans know our own little sections of Amerian reality, and that is what we can share. But it is not the whole truth.
I believe that patriotism should be a complicated feeling in any thinking person no matter where you arc from. In order to love your country, you must first strive to know it well, and that means accepting things both positive and negative about it. A true patriot, in my view, can proclaim her nation's virtues and decry her shames with equal honesty and feeling. Being an American, I have a lot to think about. My country is relatively young (the Declaration of Independence from England was signed on july 4th, 1776, making us 234 years old). but it has done much. It became a world super power because of World War Ⅱ and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it is the world's only remaining super power (though China is certainly not far behind). The government and the people of thc United States have been a part of many actions, foreign and domestic, noble and despicable. In this way we are sort of like the overgrown teenager of the world-full of power, but often unsure how to wield it. We are too often immature, clumsy, and prone to fits. But, somehow we can also be charming, graceful, and magnetic. We are a complicated people in a complicated world with a complicated history brief as it may be next to an England pea China. In fact, thc Seal of the United States contains this Latin verse; E pluribus unum, which means "out of many, one." This is a truth at the heart of the American contradiction: there are many of us and yet we are, in our way, one.
We are a great immigrant nation and we always have been. This is a big part of the so-called "American Dream," which is as much an immigrant's story as any other American's: thc idea is that anyone, no matter how lowly of birth can rise in America to become great and prosperous. Such is the supposed power of our love of freedom.
The "American Dream" straddles a strange line between myth and reality, as this sort of story has actually happened; there have been famous examples of people "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps" and immigrants continue to come to the US all the time seeking a better life. The story of Superman, the most famous comic book superhero in the world, is a famous fictional example of the American immigrant story. However, the "American Dream" can be capricious. The issues of class and race in thc United Stares vacillate back and forth between conversation and conflict but are always present. Despite our ideals, America can be as unfair and as unforgiving a place as anywhere else in the world. In today's dark economic times, many in my home land are finding that the "American Dream" is just not working out for them. But there is always hope, and we are nothing if not a hopeful people.
Americans tend to be proud of who they are and where they came from (because all Americans, save our own Native Americans, can trace their lineage to somewhere else). There is a lot of talk about America being a " melting pot," as if all the cultures in the US mix together like some big fondue. It's thee and it's not. Immigrants who come to the US most often assimilate at least in some, maybe even most ways, but many people also hold on to their td ittional cultures and values as well. Ifthour ancestors are from Scotland, Korea, Bd zililar Mexico,thou probably carry around a birs are fr"OldWorldilaith hou, whether hou realize irsor not.
Because our country is so large, Americans can also be very regional. Region can go quite a way in defining character. Southerners have a worldwide reputation for politeness, hospitality, and grace. Midwesterners are often notedadventurous and hardy spirits. These are just a few examples of popular ideas of regionalism in America, and I include them because many Americans are not just Americans; they often identify with their home states, their counties, and their cities. Our sports teams, local celebrities, cuisines, fashion trends, etc. can all be influenced by where in the United States we are from. We are proud not only to be Americans, but also to be Idahoans, Yorkers, Texans, Californians, Floridians, and Mainers. In my case, being from North Carolina, there are a few things I always point to about my home stare with pride: the University of North Carolina's basketball team, which once contained a promising young player by the name of Michael Jordan. being one of them.
So a straight-laced Mormon kid growing Lip in Utah might have a very different experience growing up from the Latino kid in the LA public schools or an Asian kid in the New Jersey suburbs or an African American kid in Atlanta Georgia. Region can influence a lot of things, but it makes no one any less American. Utah, California, New Jersey, and Georgia are all part of thc United States of America, after all. I should also mention thai along with all this pride, there is also an acceptance of thc fact thar you might really hate where you're from as well- Another old American story is the one where young people leave behind their sometimes hateful little small towns to go to big cities where exciting things are happening. We all want to be free.
I have said that Americans arc hopeful, and 1 believe itto be true on a broad and general scale. We are a confident lot and perhaps this goes back 10 our pioneer roots. Many new Americans, from 200 years ago 10 today, left whatever home they once had to come to a new and unknown land, and that takes at least a little courage. At its best, it can fuel our desire to innovate, change, and better the world around us; at worst, it can make Americans the most notoriously arrogant people in the world and careless to the plights of others.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French fellow who wrote a big book about America a Icing, long time ago, wrote that, "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in lier ability to repair her faults." I for one sure hope he was right. The America I love is the America that strives to be that "more perfect union" it once claimed to be, and it is the sincere hope of many of us that we can one day become just that if not more.
By Matthew Ross Prof. of English Language & Literature
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