It is strange that such a simple question can make your heart jump into your throat.
“Are you an American?” people will ask, as soon as you open your mouth, or just act in your typically overly gregarious American way, which sometimes involves using your hands to eat, looking people in the eye, laughing out loud, or just smiling because you want to (from what I can tell, the far more reserved Brits usually don’t do these sorts of things, not normally).
“Why, yes,” you reply, with perhaps too much obvious pride, and in my case, maybe slowing down your syllables so much that you’d make John Wayne grimace.
“That I am, ma’aaam,” (or “sir,”), adding, “I am an Am-er-ic-an.”
Now, I feel like a fairly patriotic fellow. I do love my country, very much, and its people, despite our flaws, because of what we stand for, and what we represent. We can do better, of course, and should. To barrow shamelessly from G.K. Chesterton, ‘”My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'” Chesterton also talks about how a love of one’s home and country, put in a proper perspective, can help you to learn and look forward to Heaven.
“How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” asks C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. “Once you have realized that the Frenchman like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everything else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”
Though I know very little, and perceive even less, I do sense that people the world over, even in England, do look to us for leadership (no pressure!). All my American friends in Cambridge have stories of being grilled about our foreign policy, even here, by our closest friends and allies.
But to continue.
“I could tell,” whoever asked you if you’re from America, usually says, “because of your accent” (not adding, “and because you’re loud and silly and are smiling like a nutter”); this is quickly followed by, “Where in the States [they like putting it this way] are you from?”
“Seattle, Washington!” I’ll announce, with pride.
Sometimes, just for a moment, there’ s a bit of confusion … perhaps surprisingly, not everyone knows exactly where Seattle is, and the mention of “Washington” makes even the more geographically astute pause.
“You mean Washington state?” they’ll ask, for clarification.
“That’s the one!” you’ll add, still beaming with more than your fair share of pride (“I got asked if I was an American!” you think, ” and how cool is that?”).
Ah, but sometimes I am forced to add, “it’s near Vancouver,” or “just across from British Columbia, where we use the names of Indian chiefs and tribes, as well as dead English sea captains, to name our cities and mountains.”
I mean this is as a sort of joke, but I usually get a thoughtful nod of the head (“what did he say about dead sea captains?”).
It’s not just British people who ask if you’re an American, but people from all over the world, including lots of students from Asia, but it’s especially fun, I think, to be asked by someone who is quite English.
We were, after all, their colony not too long ago (certainly not by their standards of history), but instead of being their sons or daughters, we are now their “cousins.” It really does feel like we are part of some kind of extended family, complete with eye-rolling at the others’ behavior.
My friend Neil, for example, bemoans my habit of resorting to folksy Americanisms.
At a meeting the other day, I was about to cheer our little editorial board for a journal project we’re working on with some Davy-Crockett-esque phrase: “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead …” and my fellow American (well, half-Danish, but still mostly American) friend Christian hopped in, “when your backs against …”
“Ah!” Neil sighs, in his Glasgowian-Scots brogue. “There you Americans go again, with your folksy backwoods sayings …”.
You smile: “he said ‘you Americans’! how often does that happen?” you wonder … .
P.S. I must include a shout-out to my grandma for her box full of snacks she sent all the way from Florida; thanks grandma!