Becoming American

I got here as fast as I could, but I wasn’t born in the United States.  Despite what many people assume – and has been published in some of my author-bios – I was also not born of American parents, stationed or otherwise sojourning in Europe.

I was born in Portugal, of Portuguese parents, and so far as I know (it’s hard to stand on the marital faithfulness of people you never met even if they were your ancestresses) have no American ancestor, ever.  I probably have British blood, somewhere.  Being from the north of Portugal it is virtually impossible I don’t, when you consider trade going back to the 4th century B.C. and a tendency for well-to-do British families to send their remittance men to the area before there was an Empire.

What does this have to do with being American?

Despite the genetic ignorance of people who claim that America is a nation like old Europe of “blood and soil”? (Even there it’s honored more in the breach).  Clear nothing.

I’ve been known to say I was born American, it just took me a few years to make it official.

Is this strictly true?  Kind of.  If you squint and shake the magic 8-Ball.

Of course, I didn’t know the name for what I was or what I wanted.  I had not read that “immortal poetry” of the Declaration of Independence.  All I knew is that I wasn’t precisely right where I was, and while I loved my family and the village in which I grew up, all my impulses -- indeed, my way of being -- were at odds with the local culture and the local beliefs.

I could pass.  Well, sort of.  The truth is that looking back at my pictures I don’t see it, but total strangers started identifying me as “not from around here” as soon as I left the village to go to middle school.  And it got worse the older I got.

People didn’t identify me as American.  They didn’t get enough American tourists to make that particular guess.  German and English were the most often ventured guesses.

I will confess that at eight I decided I was going to be a writer and live in Denver.  But at the time I really had no clue what country Denver was in, and I had a vague idea it was by the sea.  No, I don’t know where I came across the city name, or why it appealed to me so much.  Could very well have been an article about the Natural History Museum.  I always liked dinosaurs.

Years later, at fourteen, I fell in love with English.  It wasn’t my second language – that was French, started at 11 and I did well in it – but English  clicked with my brain in a weird way, so that I studied it disproportionately and within a year was reading books published in English for people from Great Britain and America.  (They were unholy expensive in Portugal, so those of us in languages often went to hotel lobbies, looking for paperbacks that tourists had read and discarded to save luggage room.  Yes, I did read the most unholy “Summer Blockbuster” tripe.)

At eighteen I applied to become an exchange student.  I probably should do a post about that and the value of the experience, which wasn’t precisely the value the organization thought it should have.  I thought of it as a fancy way to run away from home.

I didn’t apply to go to the U.S. first.  I didn’t have a name for what I was or what I wanted.  I thought this would be my great adventure of a lifetime, so I listed Japan first.  I was the last student placed from Portugal that year, and I was placed in Stow, Ohio.  (I graduated 12th grade from Stow Ohio High School.)

The year was amazing.  Oh, not at first.  I remember crying after a week because, given the teacher's accent and how noisy the classroom was, I thought I was going to flunk. (I have midrange hearing loss, though I didn’t know it yet.)

I didn’t.  And I had friends and for the first time in my life went several months without anyone referring to me as “so strange.”

I was so mad in love with America that I applied for college and tried to figure out a way to stay.  Only dad was sending me heart-rending letters about how badly he missed me and I was always daddy’s girl.

So I returned. And knew almost immediately I’d made a mistake.  It was sort of like I’d been in a straitjacket my whole life, got out of it, and then was forced back into it.

It seemed like I should have gotten used to it, but I didn’t. The longer I stayed in Portugal, the more I missed America.  By the end of college, I was part of an American expatriate group and we were homesick for the stupidest things: the smell of Pine-Sol, sitcoms, certain candies.  We’d get together and have the weirdest conversations all about “remember when” even though we had no background in common.

By my third year in college, I’d started planning my escape and was actively applying to graduate schools in the U.S.  I had answers, too, and an offer of an assistantship at a prestigious eastern college, when I happened to call someone I knew – but never dated – from my exchange student days.  A month later we were calling each other three times a day, raking up fantastic phone bills, and I was cutting class to talk to him.  (It’s okay, still did fine.)

When we decided to get married, I dropped negotiations for an assistantship and finishing my doctorate in the U.S.  My husband-to-be had a job, and I didn’t want to disrupt it.  In retrospect, both that college and I dodged a bullet.

And yet when I married my husband and came to live in the U.S., with the intention of living here for the rest of my life, I felt like a stranger.  Okay, partly this was because at the time we were living in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where most people seemed to decide I was – of all things – Mexican within seconds of meeting me.  (It’s like they’d heard of Mexicans but never actually met one.)

Part of it was because I was thinking of me as living here the rest of my life and needing to fit in.

I still loved the U.S., but I was aware of sticking out like a sore thumb.

If you’ve never lived in another country with the intention of staying there for good – visiting doesn’t count.  You wear your strangeness on your sleeve, then – you probably don’t know how much you stick out anywhere else.  It’s not just your accent.  You move differently.  Your manners are different.  You “signal” differently.  Most of the things that people identify as “smart” or “polite” are culture-dependent.  One of my fellow exchange students, when asked how she liked American boys, answered in an exasperated manner that she couldn’t tell, because she wasn’t familiar enough with the culture to know who was smart, or acting nice, or really anything.  And she was right.  I didn’t understand how right until I became the “stranger” myself.

But I wanted to be American, and I wanted to live the rest of my life in the country.  So I learned.  I watched American women of my generation, to copy expressions, gestures, ways of walking.  I listened to old TV on syndication (I rarely watch TV.  I’m too restless for that) all day, to get colloquial language and cultural references.  I borrowed autobiographies from the library and read them.  No, not biographies of famous people, but the kind of autobiographies that are (or used to be) donated by a family who just printed 100 copies of grandma’s autobiography and that were kept in some corner under “local history” or some such.  And I read the founding documents, the arguments on what they meant, the history and background of this, our great experiment.

I’d like to tell you all this fell into place very quickly.  It didn’t.  I didn’t even become a citizen at the 3-year mark when it’s allowed for spouses of citizens.  I wasn’t done with my studies.  If I was going to swear to defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic, I wanted to be sure of what I was doing.

And when I was, I went through the citizenship process and became an American citizen.

After which I learned even more about the culture and the history of the nation, as I supervised my kids through their growing up and education.

Recently while visiting my father-in-law at a nursing home, he asked my son: “I like your tie, but why are you wearing a stars and stripes tie?”  And son answered, “I love this country.  It’s the one mom chose.”  I won’t lie, I teared up a little.

The process of being an American goes on, though.  As almost everyone here should be aware, being an American – not just fitting in the culture, and because that’s regional it means I’ll need to learn to talk and walk again if I move across the country again – is an ongoing process, an ongoing fight between liberty and totalitarian impulses which exist in every society and possibly in every human.  And it is a struggle to free yourself from the inherited nonsense that has plagued other societies too: ideas of class and inherited rank or ability.

It is our solemn duty, no matter how many of our compatriots fail at it, to live up to our amazing luck in being citizens of the greatest nation on Earth, one founded on the belief that individuals can be self-governing and are the bosses of their own government.

Thank you for admitting me to the privilege.  Never forget your luck. Learn to live up to it.