When I was about 5 years old, I learned I was American. I was sitting at a Japanese restaurant a few blocks from my parents’ apartment in Manhattan. I remember the exact moment, though I can’t remember what led to it. Maybe I’d parroted some comment about what Americans are like that I’d heard one of my immigrant family members make, and my mother felt the need to set the record straight. I’m not sure. But I remember that my mother got a funny look on her face and said, in French, “You know, you’re American, too.”
On the walk home, I cried. Not tears of joy. I wondered if this could really be true, that I was American, and I was told there was no doubt about it, since I was born in New York.
Up to that point, I believe I thought I was French, although I’m not positive. My family is not exactly French. Like many Jews, we’re from many places, some friendly to the United States, some not; some the current president would probably consider “shithole countries” and some he seems to admire. We had lived for centuries, or resided for a few years, in France, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, Latvia, and Poland. But we spoke French at home because that was my parents’ common language, so probably I thought I was French. As best as I can piece together, I felt devastated to learn I was American, because I associated America with things my parents didn’t like: Ronald Reagan, for instance, who was then president, and Wonder Bread. To be American seemed embarrassing.