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.
I was a child; I was not an independent thinker. I’m certain no one had ever told me, directly, that Americanness was embarrassing, but I must have received that impression from somewhere. Nor was I particularly discerning, because I hadn’t absorbed the complexity of my family’s feelings about their adopted home.
My mother, father, aunt, and uncle came here by choice, in pursuit of what is generally called “opportunity.” For various reasons, their birth countries were not viable options. And they felt that in other nations, they would stick out as immigrants, never really feel “of” the place, whereas in the United States they could blend in, if they so desired. Many times, I heard some version of the following: “In France (or Spain, or England), we would never have been French (or Spanish, or English); but we came to America, where we can be American.”
Often, my relatives were asked where they were from originally, but not with malice; people were curious, and in New York, at any rate, their stories were no big deal. Virtually everyone was from somewhere else originally, and lots of people were from somewhere else recently. This meant that New Yorkers had a lot of culinary options. In a five-block radius of the building where I grew up, there was the Japanese restaurant where I learned I was American, a Turkish restaurant, a Korean corner store, a few Chinese restaurants, a few Italian places, and an Afghan restaurant. It was the United Nations in food form.
Foreign languages and customs were about as common as English and domestic customs. I may be the rare person to have been told I was American in French at a Japanese restaurant, but conversations in foreign languages were common enough where I lived that no one had turned around to check us out.
My family chose America, and was happy to have chosen America—but my parents’ embrace of their adopted home was neither complete nor blind. Both were able to start businesses here and go about their lives, raising their children as they saw fit, without interference. They liked that. But my mother in particular didn’t like Reagan, and she evidently communicated this to me. She also didn’t like that, in a country as rich as the United States, there were so many homeless people on the streets and desperate people in emergency rooms. She communicated this to me, too, and long after I first learned I was American, I continued to feel a little iffy about the whole thing. My education reinforced that iffiness; I had a socialist history teacher from Ireland who’d been welcomed in New York but wanted his students to know that New York, and America as a whole, had hardly welcomed everyone. The very people who had not come here by choice, who had been forced to come here, were—generally speaking—the least welcome.
So I wanted to have it both ways. I still do. I want to be able to say, “I’m as American as the next guy, even if the next guy’s ancestors came over on the Mayflower.” But I also want to be able to say, “Don’t blame me; blame the next guy, whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. We just got here.” I often feel compelled to note that I am, specifically, a first-generation American. That seems like a good way of conveying Yes, I’m American, but also only somewhat American. Technically, there was never any doubt about my Americanness. Emotionally, there was and there is.
When my relatives said that we came to America because in America we could be American, the could was key. We could be American, but we also could be that and something else—newcomers, with a sense of how things were done in other places, including things that were done worse, and things that were done better.
I’m reflecting on this now because, in this political moment, it occurs to me that my ability to only tentatively embrace America is a privilege that makes America great. More than that, it’s what makes America America. This is a country where immigrants can come and decide precisely how much they want to be American, and how much they’d like to retain of the “places from which they came.” I suppose that’s another way of saying: This is a country where immigrants can come and decide what it is to be American, for themselves.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as the quintessential American, but there is a quintessence of American identity: habitually asking oneself what this country is all about, and answering that question differently at different times. The United States offers immigrants the freedom of self-definition, which is not a small thing.
My family and I could code-switch identities the way some people switch accents; sometimes we were immigrants, sometimes we were hyphenated Americans, sometimes we were Americans, full stop. We were allowed that latitude by the society we lived in. We could love or leave these different American identities, secure in the feeling that there was no need to love or leave America itself. We could love certain things about America, hate certain things, feel embarrassed by certain other things—and we could still call it home.