Whether your American citizenship is a gift of birth and blood or a hard-earned right or a little bit of both, it can often be easy to pick and choose from different identities other than that of country. But not always. Sometimes, at home or abroad, with friends or strangers, you’re reminded quite suddenly that you’re an American. But how does this happen, and why? In advance of Eric Liu’s “Citizen Who?” performance at Zócalo, we asked Americans from different walks of life to describe when and where they feel the most American.
As a writer who came to the English language in my adolescent years, I confront the question of my identity on a daily basis as I express myself in this adopted tongue. My first “confrontation” with the English language was at a refugee camp in Thailand. I was 9 years old, facing an English-speaking interviewer and a translator on my own. They were questioning me, separately from my mother, to establish a coherent narrative of our experience of war and our eligibility for immigration. After the horrors we’d lived through under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, I’d lost the ability to communicate even in my own language. But if I could not tell my story, the translator explained, we might never leave that camp—or, worse, we could be sent back across the border. Somehow I managed to utter a few words in Khmer that gave some intimation of all we’d lost.
After arriving in America, I slowly began to realize that the English language could offer me a new voice, one not fixed in that tragic past. Even as I was just learning to communicate with my new schoolmates in Missouri, I began to acquire a confidence in self-expression that would allow me to articulate that which fear had kept me from recounting as a young child emerging from war.
Writing my first novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, which takes place in Cambodia during the revolution I lived through, I tried to construct a narrative in English that would carry the resonance of my native tongue. I sought not only to translate the words but also the rhythm, sounds, and sentiments of a world which can never be fully recovered. Being American, I feel, requires a similar, continual act of self-construction—not so much leaving behind a former identity to adopt a new one, but finding resonance in the echoes of our many histories, our varied selves.
Buying water at a liquor store on Pico while the cashier and another man behind the counter look me over.
“Where are you from?” asks the first man.
“You are not American!” he exclaims.
“Yes. I’m pretty sure.”
The man turns to his friend and says, “She is not American. She is Russian. Look at her eyes.”
The other man scrutinizes me for a few seconds and says, softly and seriously, “She has cat eyes,” then looks away.
Floating in an inner tube on a man-made lake in California, the sun slowly bakes my beer and my body. Kid Rock blasts from a nearby speedboat, but I don’t mind. There’s plenty of space for everybody in this flooded valley that once was a town. A stone church and Model T still stand at the bottom, underneath all this water.
Shooting tin cans of beans out in the empty desert with my .22. A dirt biker comes out of nowhere and crosses right into the line of fire. I quickly point my muzzle up in the air, and he buzzes past while giving me the peace sign with two gloved fingers. As the sun sets, I drive my Ford truck back across the dry lake to the highway. I watch as a group of people leave a large industrial building surrounded by a chain link fence. The grounds are covered with large pyramids made of PVC pipe. The exiting people are happy and smiling and wearing pyramid-shaped hats.
My neighbor decides to build a tower in his backyard. He does all his research and makes sure his structure is legal and up to code. The tower is craftsman style with a roof, wood siding, windows, and a cool basement to store his beer on a hot day. It is three stories tall and near a busy intersection in the center of Hollywood. When you climb the fixed ladder to the top you can see the taco stand, the auto body shop, the school, the gas station, people coming and going. Sometimes people see you up there and wave from the street. It sways gently in the wind, and pigeons like to roost in its quiet shelter. It stands like a mysterious monument in the neighborhood for three years until the landlord finally notices and makes him tear it down.
Whenever I approach a U.S. customs officer, that’s when I feel most American.
Let me explain: In the 1800s the U.S. government signed the Jay Treaty, which promised that Native Americans from Canada with 50 percent Native blood could live and work in the United States unencumbered. I was born such a Native, so my U.S. immigration process—150 years later—was laughably simple. I just walked into an INS office in Manhattan, filled out some paper work, gave them my fingerprints, and was handed a green card. I have placed orders at McDonald’s that took longer to process. Since then, I have felt as American as they come—more so, because as a Native North American, I am a citizen of the continent. I never worried when I approached a guard at the U.S.-Canada border because I could not be denied access to either country.
Then 9/11 happened, and my Native American freedoms eroded away. My tribal ID is no longer enough to gain re-entry into the U.S. Instead, it must be accompanied by a letter of blood quantum—which customs may now contest, and hold me for as long as they want under international law. My Native status has been challenged so often that now I travel with my green card as proof that I am a legal immigrant. An immigrant! The hassle may not seem like a big deal, but there are 500 years of principle involved.
My Native history has always involved the dissolving of treaty rights by the U.S. government. They did it to my ancestors, and now they are doing it to me, and in some strange way that makes me feel a part of this country’s history. So now, whenever I approach a U.S. customs officer, for better or worse, that’s when I feel most “American”.