Monday, February 3, 2014

What Does it Mean to be American?


An ad from Coca-Cola has set off quite a debate on social media sites this morning. The ad featured America the Beautiful being sung in many different languages by people from many different ethnic origins. The point of the ad, as far as I can tell, was to demonstrate how from many we become one as Americans. Instead, along with most everything else nowadays, it seems to have divided us once again. While some thought that it was beautiful and touching, others were offended that such an iconic patriotic song wouldn’t be sung in English, by those teaming masses yearning to be free. Shouldn’t it have shown these people singing in their native tongues at the beginning but then all singing in English at the end? Wouldn’t that have been a better illustration of what it means to be American?

I have not commented on any of this because honestly, I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly it means to be American. My kids will tell you how overbearingly patriotic their Dad can be. I take a back seat to no one in that department. I still hold a grudge against the Japanese for Pearl Harbor, for heaven’s sake. I still get choked up when I hear someone sing the National Anthem well, like the opera singer did last night. In short, I love my country. But, is there more to being American than merely being born here? I think so. In fact, I believe that being an American is as much an idea as it is an accident of birth. Unlike any other place on Earth, we Americans are all from somewhere else. We aren’t burdened with 1500 year old families and the peerage system of Great Britain. We aren’t old enough as a nation to have taken on a caste system or an archaic aristocracy. We’re a place that people have chosen as a means of escape from that old world straightjacket. We are the place that offers that rarest of benefits…freedom. In the over 4000 years of this world’s recorded history there’s been nothing else like it. We welcome the stranger because we were all welcomed here ourselves. The boat people weren’t headed for Vietnam. People don’t try to squeeze through the fence to get to Mexico. People haven’t plotted and schemed all of their lives thinking, “Boy, if I can just get to Poland, everything will be better.” America is the place, we are the dream.

And yet, tomorrow morning I will wake up at 6 am, pick up my cell phone that was assembled in China, and go downstairs to brew my Guatemalan coffee. I will eat an English muffin, then go upstairs and brush my teeth with toothpaste,(Aquafresh) from the Netherlands. After my shower I will use Vaseline lotion courtesy of Unilever, a British company. I will iron my dress shirt made in India and pick out an Italian tie. I will then drive to work in my American car (Cadillac CTS), which was manufactured in Canada. Once at work I will fire up my Japanese laptop while trying to decide whether to have Italian or Mexican for lunch. Ain’t it great to be an American?

Part of me understands the frustration of some of the objections I read on Facebook, mostly about the importance of sharing a common language. While we may not have an official language, English is the language of commerce both here and abroad. It is also the common civil language that for two centuries now immigrants have learned to better equip themselves for success. It seems a reasonable request for a country to make of its new citizens, to require them to learn English.

But when I watched the Coke commercial I felt proud to live in such a country as this, a country that welcomes and embraces. The generations of immigrants that have made America their home have added much to our cultural fabric. They have brought spice and color and music and art. We have benefited from their labor. America isn’t now nor has it ever been diminished by the other. We are the other!

My brother’s wife is from the Philippians. She became a citizen a few years back. I have a close friend who has been like one of my own children to me, whose parents are from Korea. They are 100% American, and it is this blessed fact that makes this country so great. E pluribus unum.

God Bless America.