What does “American” mean?

There aren’t many words whose meanings I haven’t immediately grasped upon being introduced to them. But as I was reflecting on the anniversary of the events that happened 12 years ago, I realized that my understanding of the word “American” has been evolving and deepening for my whole life, and I suspect that it’s still far from complete. I also suspect that this one word has an extremely powerful impact on everyone who identifies as an American, and that that meaning is probably a little different for each one of us.

When I was little, being American meant saying the pledge of allegiance every day in school, even if the phrase “…and to the republic, for which it stands…” never really made any sense. It also meant memorizing the 50 states song, which listed all the states in alphabetical order, as well as the preamble song. Being American meant celebrating the 4th of July by covering our bikes in gaudy red, white, and blue streamers and joining all the other neighborhood kids in a bike parade. It also meant wearing an Old Navy flag t-shirt and probably those flip flops that had stars on the left foot and stripes on the right. Fireworks and sparklers were also imperative.

Image: pbs.org

By the time I went to live in France for 4 months, I was almost 20, and my patriotism was in need of a boost. Luckily, my séjour in Paris provided me with just that. I began to appreciate more American luxuries like having eggs for breakfast, running errands on Sundays, and public transportation that actually runs when it’s supposed to (to be fair, the Parisian Metro is great, except when they decide they need to spice life up a little and strike… which is much too often). I also started to fully grasp the concept of the self-made American man, and why it’s one that sets America apart from others. I started to truly understand why America prides itself as the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Even recently, I’ve had the opportunity to explore a great variety of places in America, and these have all shaped my understanding of what “American” means. The essence of the word was captured this past 4th of July, listening to the Boston Pops perform at the Hatch Shell, followed by fireworks over the Charles River. It was clear in the billboards, neon lights, and smells of grilling hot dogs as I approached Times Square late one night. The meaning of “American” was pretty clear as I rode down the Pacific Coast Highway, the ocean immediately to my right, mountains to the left.

Tonight, my working definition of “American” is still a little hazy. It has something to do with picking apples and turning them into pies right around the time of year when the leaves turn vibrant shades of yellow and orange. Being American also has something to do with riding down the highway, blasting country songs in which men sing about their women, their pickup trucks, and their beer. My understanding of “American” also includes Thanksgiving, a day in which we watch football (the football that requires helmets and shoulder pads), spend all day preparing and eating the food we imagine the Pilgrims ate, and proceed to stimulate our economy the following day. America isn’t perfect – for example, that first Thanksgiving likely marked the beginning of a long history of mistreating Native Americans – but any nation who can come out of a tragedy such as the attacks of 9/11 as a stronger and more unified nation is pretty awesome in my book.