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What It Means to Be American

POSTCARD FROM SPAIN

By Victor Chen

We were peacefully sitting in the bus going to Leon, a city in northern Spain, when someone suggested we all sing songs to pass the time. There was one catch: The students from each country had to sing a song distinctive of their homeland. The Russians went first and sang an old folk song. The Germans followed with a rendition of their national anthem. The Americans were next. What would we sing?

The 10 of us huddled together. Various ideas were proposed. "The Star Spangled Banner?" Some of us couldn't hit the high notes; others hated the song with a passion. "This Land Is Your Land?" We didn't know the words. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame?" No big baseball fans here. Finally, we narrowed the choice down to either the "Brady Bunch" theme or "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." We got down to 85 bottles and then gave into the demands of irate Europeans and Asians to shut up.

This incident evoked one of the two major epiphanies I've had while studying in Spain the last few weeks. The first had to do with those roundish sinks you find in every bathroom here (they're not for washing your feet, I learned). The second, which happened on my bus trip, had to do with what it means to be American. The two happen to be (somewhat) related. Seeing the vast differences between the United States and Spain has made me realize how alike we Americans are, whether we like it or not.

The subject of the American national identity is complex and contentious, often the subject of longwinded debates in American history circles. Some pundits say the United States suffers from a cultural divide. Americans don't have a common culture, they say; the American people comprise too many different cultures and possess too little national sentiment to sustain a single perspective (or even a single song). Certainly, something of what I've seen among my fellow Americans in Spain supports this argument. We come from very different communities; we represent different regions and ethnicities and viewpoints. My own perspective as an Asian-American male from New Jersey, for instance, is distinct from that of a fellow student in my program, who is white, bisexual and from Texas.

The diversity of the United States might seem a reason for pessimism at times: How can we communicate and live with one another when we are so different--or when we have nothing in common? This was one of the questions I pondered before going to Spain, and one which I still think about now. But my time in Spain has given me new hope that Americans can maintain a common ground on which to rest their nationhood. Ironically, going to a foreign country has taught me a great deal about my own.

Before I came to Spain, I did not have any idea of where the United States stood in relation to the rest of the world. I always thought that things in America were the norm. Now I'm learning the meaning of the "difference." Riding the bus out of Madrid on my first day in Spain, I was surprised to see that between the city streets and sun-bleached countryside, there was nary a green-grassed suburb. I was even more astonished by the absence of safety fencing around the steep cliffs of the mountain ranges in northern Spain. Living with a Spanish family in Leon, where I've been studying language and literature, has been the biggest shock of all. In spite of all its old stone buildings and spacious parks, Leon feels nothing like a normal (American) city. It has only 150,000 inhabitants, and life moves at a comfortable pace. Stores close at 2 p.m. for the three-hour lunch and siesta. Every night, old and young people alike trek to the barrio humedo (the bar-pub section of town) to talk, dance and quaff wine and beer (both of which are cheaper than Coca-Cola). There is no real need for cars to get anywhere; in any case, the people are friendly and will actually talk to you in the street. Leon is a city that is laid-back, sociable and always feliz--though hardly ever drunk or violent. The contrast to the United States is always intense and usually bewildering.

Of course, this environment would be the norm for many other Spaniards. It probably wouldn't faze an Italian either. But for an American, especially one from New Jersey and Harvard, living in Leon has been like living on another planet. It has forced me to evaluate the way Americans do things with a more critical eye--and sometimes Spain seems the more sane country. For instance, why are Americans obsessed with getting drunk--something that is considered unpleasant and unhip in Spain? Why are there so many restrictive laws and so many lawsuits in America? And why are Americans such slobs, while Spaniards make their beds and clean their plates every day?

Seeing these cultural distinctions has given me a stronger sense of my American identity. Living in America, I saw the differences among races and creeds and religions; here, I've had to realize that I'm more American than I thought, or perhaps wanted. It's like living in a small town and then moving to New York City. You thought all your life that your old town was the world and that the kid who lived on the corner of the street and had a pierced ear was some breed of mutant. Then you go to New York City and realize the true meaning of perforation--and how you'd like to sit down with that kid now and talk about normal things again.

In the same way, I've come to recognize a common band of culture that I share with the other Americans in my group. It isn't as old as German culture or Russian culture; it doesn't mean Americans like the same songs or the same customs or the same food (though pizza and hamburgers are quite universal). What it does mean, at least to me, is that we shouldn't be so pessimistic about our supposedly irreconcilable differences as Americans. We appear really distinct as a whole from the people of other countries, if you look from outside the United States. Whether we accept it or not, a common popular culture joins us: one of television and the Constitution, of the Puritan work ethic (known so well by Harvard students) and immigration, or diversity and division. Generations are joined by common events (the 1980s, for us students); ethnicities are joined by a generally common acceptance of America as being a multicultural nation. America still is distinctive, still a single nation and still capable of working together in spite of its internal differences.

For me, it was worth one summer without an internship (another American obsession) to gain a new perspective on my own country. I recommend, without reservation, taking the time to see a different culture. Sometimes it takes a trip across an ocean to understand what you left behind.

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