I tell people that i am from Wisconsin, even though I only lived there two years. My students ask me where I am from and I tell them San Juan and they feel as if it is an evasion or that I refuse to understand the questions. I have lived in Puerto Rico or it has been my official residence since 1985. But my family has lived here since 1966 and my parents and two of my five sisters still live here. It makes it simpler than a long explanation. If someone asks me where I grew up, then I tell them Iowa, but I have not been in Iowa, other than to visit one of my sister who lives there and a summer job in 1970, since 1966. These questions become meaningless. My students are right in asking me where I am from, since I am not from Puerto Rico, but I do not feel like the label of American really defines anyone very well. I have also been upset by comments like, "Oh, that's because you are an American."
I don't deny being an American and it also bothers me a bit when people patronizingly tell me that I am not like an American. That term describes me about as well as it describes anyone else. A Danish friend of mine once told me that some of her office mates were taking a trip and wanted to meet real Americans. When she offered me, whom she had talked about, they told her that they wanted to meet real Americans, or in other words, Americans closer to a stereotype.
And I live in a country that cannot really define itself, which for me is fine, but spends a lot of energy on boosterism, ignoring chaos and social problems or blaming them on national status. Every morning when I wake up I listen to a jazz station on the university station until 6:00 a.m. and then a program comes on that plays songs like, "I would be Puerto Rican, even if I was born on the moon." Of course, such an exaggeration reflects insecurity and in-your-face nationalism more than true feelings.
Saying I'm an American can also unleash a condescending attitude about the limits of my knowledge, since everyone in the "New World" is an American. This was perhaps some of the first politically correct speech. I just ignore them or explain that they themselves probably do not go through all the trouble of saying "Estado Unidedense." All those other countries have titles. A Mexican is not 'un republica de Mexicano."
All titles or descriptives are vague and lead to assumptions. Despite how television and mass culture has made our knowledge more manufactured and our ideas less individual, there is still a lot that exists beyond these lines. What might be common, what Freud discussed in Civilization and its Discontent is no doubt the engine for what we all do, but it does not determine the shape or content.
And I admit that my culture has determined a lot of what I am and that I can understand more readily someone from my generation who is American. Still, my mind is full of places and cultures and lives beyond my American self. Those who have only American lives have so many, understand uniquely their position in ther social setting, that they cannot be pegged either. Yet we live in fear of being different and want a word like American or Texan or Puerto Rican to say so much about us. We build ourselves throughout our lives and if we remain satisfied with these nationalistic or regionalistic or boosteristic titles, then we will know even less of who we are.
The Rum Diary
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