My American Identity

‘Identity’ – this is something I have struggled with and questioned for years – obsessed with answers to my conflicting concept of the American me vs. the European heritage of me – I even went to graduate school in Eastern Europe and scrupulously studied  the complexity and importance of… ‘identity’.

Being a forth generation American, one would think I’m pretty as ‘American’ as one can get. I grew up with ‘American’ traditions and ‘American’ holidays. Yet, growing up with friends of 1st of 2nd generations – I always felt like I was missing out on something. They had these rich cultural traditions from Poland, Mexico and elsewhere – and I knew nothing of my ancestors’ beliefs, customs or even really where they were from. I felt a black void in my history that grew deeper and wider as I became an adult.  I think my father suffers from this too – his response being to meticulously sift through and identify old family photographs, register at Ancestory.com and piece together a family tree that seems to shockingly leave me as the last of the line…

I, on the other hand have chosen a different path – one that has however left me with more questions, than any concrete answers, or solid structures defining the construct of my own personal identity. Where my father looks back to the past for these answers, I have apparently rested hope that the future will inevitably map out the way. He constructs the puzzle, I go in search of the most appealing image…

Six years ago, I more or less, tried to run away from my American identity. Disgusted by my country’s politics and posturing around the world, I attempted to quietly sneak out the door and re-join a more sophisticated and intriguing ‘European’ dream.  In Poland, I was close to my Bohemian roots, ( and for whatever this was worth, it made me feel a little bit closer to the ‘real’ me, the deeper me.) I felt as though I could identify more honestly with the eastern Europeans – their sorrow and darkness I could so easily relate to, and I embraced their cultural memories as my own – for I too had suffered… so of course, I belonged, I understood.

While in Poland I also became enmeshed in nationalism, wrote my master’s thesis on it – the good, the bad, the ugly of the monsterous beast that was and is, nationalism. Like identity, I wanted to understand it, and like identity, I had no solid definition in my own world. I was obsessed with the idea of such strong, impassioned feelings for one’s mother land. The mere idea of fighting, dying and sacrificing family, life and all else for a piece of dirt mystified me – still does. For standing behind the ideals and actions of your country seemed so utterly foreign – but then I realized it all came down to one thing… identity – the constant struggle to hold on to and maintain the sacred, secure sense of one’s identity –  nationalism seemed a very safe fortress indeed. But I had no sense of nationalism, no faith in my homeland, no proud identity as an ‘American’. And while I found a great sense of myself in Eastern Europe – I would never really be eastern European – would always be a foreigner, on the outside looking in.

So I took myself to places I had no connection with – places where peoples’ identities were extremely different from my own – which began to really show me how much of my identity really is embedded in the land I had come from – and in turn – I finally, for the first time in my life began to appreciate my cultural identity.  Not because I was displeased with what I was observing of others’ cultures, but because in learning their beauty and complexity, I was slowing beginning to understand the beauty and complexity of my own – and realized, I could not escape it – my culture was ingrained in me, sown into the very fabric of my being.

I had this epiphany moment this past spring while waiting on a corner in Antalya, Turkey for a friend and an anticipated bike ride up into the mountains. As I waited, I nonchalantly rested my bicycle against a tree and sat down on the sidewalk – Indian style. Cars past and people stared – as if I were sitting there completely naked, or doing some sort of awkward street dance for all to gawk at. I was amazed…(ok, well, not really… this is Antalya after all), but still, the moment perplexed me. Why was this such a shocking sight – a woman sitting on the sidewalk as she waited with her bicycle? You don’t see such things here; people don’t typically sit on the ground – it’s dirty first of all. And a woman?! Never! Oh well, I thought as I continued to wait – I’m an American – I have different standards apparently for where I can or cannot sit… and frankly, I’m happy with that. I am perfectly comfortable with my cultural norms of ground-sitting and will continue to practice them, unabated.

My ground-sitting more or less made me ‘proud’ to have come from where I did. I was happy that I was able to sit on dirt, or pavement, or hug a tree or roll in the grass if I so desired. And then yesterday, I past an older man and his grandson, lying in the dirty autumn grass, and a smile crept upon my face, as I realized, I somehow felt completely ‘connected’ to them. Mind you, I had no idea who these two people were – just a Turkish man and boy lying in the grass. But it was their act of enjoying the ground that connected me to them… like our cultures had suddenly come together in this simple act of allowing oneself to get dirty.

Of course there are so many more complex and dynamic examples of what makes up my cultural DNA, but then I am forced to question how much of this chain is directly linked to the ‘American’ me, and how much of it is linked to what I have picked up (knowingly or not) along the way. I realize I am a mix of cultures, of experiences from different countries, people and traditions. So given that this is initially what made America what it is – the grandiose mix of identities that it has become – does that make me MORE American… or just a post-modern, country-less, identity perplexed woman of the new world? Bewildering and troubling indeed… I suppose all I can do at this point is keep questioning, keep living and experiencing, and perhaps someday, I will be able to stop challenging my identity so, and just marvel in the many layers that make it unique and 100%, mine.