I have never owned a nationality more so than while living in another country. The concoction of European ethnicities that comprise my blood all converge into one simple identity that I'm forced to claim almost any time I open my mouth and betray my less than perfect French accent: I'm American. No, I don't eat McDonald's. Yes, I hate George Bush.
Stereotyping different nationalities is unfortunately somewhat of a human pastime. Everyone told me Parisians would be snobby, but I've seen little evidence of that. Everyone also said that they eat a lot of baguettes and ride bicycles: okay, I'll admit that's true. But as a white, middle class woman brought up in America, I've been lucky to generally avoid harsh stereotypes. Furthermore, those images that have coalesced around the American identity are ones I never really gave much thought to, mostly because they exist outside of the collective consciousness of Americans themselves. It's difficult to parse ideas so subliminally woven into every day life.
In France, I'm used to the same questions borne of assumptions, and I don't begrudge the Parisians for asking them of me; in fact, I tend to do the same thing with them. Have I ever been to New York? (Yes, I lived there.) What the fuck is up with Britney Spears? (I wish I had an answer for you).
The enforcement of these stereotypes lends itself to the construction of an identity that I hadn't really considered before: I am an American woman. What does this mean, other than the fact that French men believe that we are easy and want to touch my hair on the Metro? It's interesting to grapple with these concepts of identity and self-evolution in a country that is so proud of its culture and history, and also so obsessed with self-definition. Paris was the home of existentialism in the 40's and 50's, after all.
As a child I wanted desperately to be a part of a group that tied me to a strong kinship network, in a way Judaism did with many of my friends. My two best friends are from Iran and, upon learning this, I quickly hooked into the rich cultural breadth of the Middle Eastern experience. I always felt that a strong cultural or religious background was something lacking in my life. There is a certain pride in owning your ethnicity that the French exhibit daily, but, to me, it just seems so foreign.
Perhaps because the US is still a relatively new country -- particularly compared to France and other European nations -- there isn't a strong sense of selfhood surrounding our nationality. The individualistic attitude the US is notorious for could also contribute to this disparity. I believe the American identity is something divorced from flag pins on politician's lapels or God Bless America signs looming over Midwestern freeways. We are content to define ourselves outside of the realm of cultural background -- you are what you do, not where you come from. But, as living in a foreign country has taught me, where you come from can highly influence what you do.
Right now I'm trying to figure out what it actually means to be an American, and to identify strongly with a nationality, when I have spent my whole life feeling left out of the Cool Foreign Experiences Club. (I'm so not even over not getting a Bat Mitzvah). Before I would have lamented this, gone to Ireland in search of family heirlooms and subsequently pretended that being half Irish meant something to me. But now, confronted almost daily with the startlingly obvious and yet never before contemplated fact that I actually do have a nationality outside of my strange, watered down blood, I'm learning to come to terms with it.
So beyond stereotypes and grand generalizations, what does being American mean to me? That might be a question that takes longer than four months to answer.