You Are Just American

I was raised to be a proud Irish-American. Bagpipe lessons and step dancing, shamrocks and an shillelaghs were a constant presence in my youth.  On St Patrick’s Day of course myself and the Irishly named O’Connors, O’Briens, MaGees and others took special pride in our heritage.  We weren’t just any Americans, we were “Irish-Americans.”

I carried on, happily hyphenated until my time in Japan.  The first few times I explained it to the locals, I assumed it was a problem with them.

As I celebrated St. Patricks day in Japan a local would inevitably ask, “So you’re Irish?” image

“Well, on my mother’s side I’m German and French.  But on my father’s side I’m Irish.”

“So where are you from?

“America.”

“Oh, but your father is from Ireland.”

“No, he’s from Queens.  But he’s Irish.”

“So your grandfather is from Ireland?”

“No, not really. He was born in Manhattan, but it was a really Irish neighborhood.”

“I see.  So you’re American.”

There are any number of reasons why Americans are so obsessed with our hyphenations.  It could be the relative youth of our country, inherent in having such a multicultural society or it could even be part of our basic human need to define ourselves.  Regardless of the reason for it, we do it.  But over my years in Japan I started more and more to identify myself purely as an American, rather than with any ancestral ties.  My roommate from Galway was actually Irish.  I was just American.  Not that it’s a bad thing.

For some reason that sounds bad though, doesn’t it.  “You are just American.”  There is nothing wrong with being “just American.”  Yet for some reason we are constantly searching for ways in America to further define ourselves beyond our nationality.

“I’m not American!  I’m a thirty-something, meat eating, straight, Caucasian, Irish, German, French, Catholic, east coast, moderate, environmentalist, college educated, twenty-first century, gourmet, literate, dog-owning, urban, hipster, New Yorker, Long Islander American.  Thank you very much.”  No, sorry. I’m still just American.

In Japan, like very few other places, nationality, ancestry and race are all the same thing.  You can become a citizen, marry a Japanese, get elected to government, become the top sumo wrestler in the nation yet you will still always be “not-Japanese.” America however has a pretty low bar for becoming one of us.  Getting a green card may be tough, but we consider you American immediately.  Especially if you are good at baseball.

It isn’t really even a part of patriotism.  I know many very patriotic Americans who view their multicultural backgrounds as one of the proudest aspects of America.  Likewise I know many ardently “Japanese” Japanese people who would never raise a flag or sing “Kimi ga yo” their national anthem.  I’m not trying to judge either case but it does strike me how the two can so easily co-exist in America.  We define ourselves by cultures we often have only distant connections to, yet never consider it to be a betrayal of our “Americaness.”

I’m actually preparing a big Japanese style dinner for some guests tonight and my Mom asked if we should put out chopsticks or silverware.  My Dad joked “Put out both, I’ll use the silverware but Kevin is Japanese now so he can use the chopsticks.”  He really hit the nail on the head in a way, because realistically I have more claim to being Japanese-American now than I ever did to being Irish-American.  Though, Japanese people would certainly disagree with that.

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