There are Americans who loudly complain that their culture is being stolen from them. There are also Americans who want their ethnicity or religion or family country of origin to be trumpeted as their very identity.
This article is not about any of the foregoing.
It is about three people in Eden Prairie who describe feeling, at times, like a stranger in their birth culture—as if they are on the outside looking into their heritage. At the same time, they describe feeling vitally American with all the unique individuality that entails.
Walk like an Egyptian?
Scot Adams is a professor in the School of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota. His mother traveled from the US to Egypt, was briefly married to an Egyptian man, and—pregnant with Scot—returned to the US to settle in Montana.
Decades later, looking at him, an angry man blurted, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” To which Adams replied, “Montana?”
His birth name was Scot Khalifa. Some years later his mother married for a second time, to a Mr. Adams who adopted Scot and gave him the surname he has now had for so long.
His mother was German Catholic, but his parents did not raise him in any religion. He did not live the life of an Egyptian. He has always felt that he did not have any “group connection”.
He does feel American and has “a high opinion of America.” At the same time, he is “more than American” and does see things in America that he would change.
If anything, he feels part of a mathematics culture, with an emphasis on analysis and always looking for the “next level of truth.”
He does not attend any church and has not raised his children in any religion. His language is English with a little bit of Russian and French.
Asked if he has any thoughts of trying to preserve his culture, he flatly states that his culture is America. He is worried about America and wants to protect our ability to be different from one another.
Adams’s mathematics specialty has very heavily developed in Israel. Fleetingly he sometimes feels that his Jewish Israeli colleagues may have occasionally slighted him (probably unconsciously) because of his German and Egyptian background.
Meanwhile, he still feels somewhat guilty because, when he was 13, he and his schoolmates harassed a Chinese student’s family.
In his early twenties he feels he was really “passing.” “I thought people didn’t see my Arabness. I don’t carry an accent. I don’t talk about Arab holidays.”
What makes him proud of himself? When he was 13 going on 14, he skipped high school, going directly to college. At that time, he was “insufferable,” annoyingly proud of himself. Nowadays he is proud of himself as a resilient problem-solver, a person who has tenacity and is able to get things done.
That old-time religion
Sue Ellen Toppings is an assistant vice president and on-site branch manager for Minnesota Bank and Trust. She was raised in “Caucasian north Minnesota” in a devoutly Missouri Synod Lutheran family. All family traditions centered around Easter, Christmas, Church, family, daytime family “devotional” readings. She was not allowed to question. She feels that she was “indoctrinated.”
The other religion in her small town was Catholicism.
Marrying a Catholic would have been a “super faux pas”. She was a true believer. She would see her dead brother and see him in heaven as a fact.
In a college class about the history of Christianity, her professors said that at the time the Nicene Creed was created, the church fathers “decided” that Jesus was fully God. She asked herself how men could decide God’s status. Only God could decide about himself.
In college, too, she had friends who were from other religions, other cultures. She felt an unfairness in the fact that people elsewhere in the world might never hear of Jesus and so would be condemned to hell.
Today she considers herself an American and yet more than an American. She feels that organized religion is not a healthy thing and has been made up to make people behave properly. She does cling to the thought that there might be an after-existence in which we become part of the universe.
Early on she and her husband sent their children to Sunday school. Their five-year-old daughter came home and told her father that she was sorry that he was going to go to hell because of the way he approached religion. They immediately withdrew their children from religious school.
Interestingly, when she and her children do attend a church service with her devout mother, Toppings finds herself enjoying the music, feeling nostalgia, and even wondering if there is such a thing as reincarnation. Meanwhile, during the sermon, her children write down challenging questions to pose to the surprised minister.
She did not have people in her life who judged whether or not she was a true Christian. Her mother “culled” such people out of Toppings’ life.
She does have a desire to preserve her culture, but that culture is American culture, not her religion. She wants to build up minorities, not tear down whites.
Has she experienced prejudice against her culture? Yes, against her female culture. She is fed up with patronizing sales people saying, “Maybe we should call your husband.”
During the pandemic she made a point of wanting to appear inclusive and as a person following health procedures. She labels herself a woman, Democrat, mother, Minnesotan, American. She is proud when women make strides and are featured in the news.
She raises an eyebrow about her Norwegian and Lutheran heritage, but then laughs at herself. “I did go to St. Olaf College.”
She feels like a member of the community at large. She is proud of the fact that she is not judgmental. “My youngest has autism. Before him, I was very judgmental.” Now she realizes that she really does not even know what is going on in other people’s lives. She encourages her children to “lead with love.”
Early this year she divorced her husband. Now she feels empowered. “I wanted my opinion to count more.”
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Leeds-Bradford anymore
Pete Rowland and another man are partners in Opusbelli, an IT consulting firm. He was born in England, lived there 27 years, and then in 1998 settled in the US.
In 2019 he was visiting his Dad and found England very strange.
He saw the rise in Brexit “and how a culture not totally on board with the European Union and monetary union was able to totally reject the European Union through people telling lies.”
He loves America but sees himself more as a “citizen of the world.”
In 2019 he formally became a US citizen. Appalled that the Trump administration had come in, he said of Americans, “You guys need all the help you can get.”
He does celebrate his British individualism, and he objects to “the religious wrong” trying to instill their religious beliefs in others. His father’s parents were Christian Scientists, “which killed my grandfather.”
He jokes that he is bilingual: he speaks British English and American English.
He cannot understand why people born in the US often do not simply identify as American. Instead, they label themselves by the country of origin their forebears may have left generations ago. “I’m Italian.” “I’m Irish.” He says, “I’m me, and me doesn’t come with a national identity.”
He tries to use American vocabulary, but he does cringe when Americans pronounce “water” “wah-dur”.
He does make a point of wearing British shirts, especially those celebrating “real” football. He does feel happy when British people make the news—like Hugh Laurie, the star of the television show “House.”
Rowland does have a sense of “being a part of the community, wherever I live.”
What makes him proud of himself? He replies, “Pride is one of the seven deadly sins.” He is proud of his family—himself, his wife, and children together. “I try to be the best me.”
From the US Constitution he treasures the words “we the people”—a “community.” “We’re all in this together, and we should support each other. Government exists to provide services that cannot be provided by private enterprise at a reasonable cost.”
So what’s going on here?
Americans sometimes simply assimilate—simply become American. They do not look to ethnicity or religion or family country of origin to define them.
And yet, sometimes other characteristics of an individual, race for example, are described as aspects which confound, or transcend a simple form of assimilation. An American identity, it may be said, is predicated on a capacity to make choices, including on the question of assimilation.
However, despite the choices a person makes, the society also makes its own judgements about people. For example, Adams’ Egyptian/Arab physicality presents itself in an American culture which reacts with, at times, hostility or exotic preconceptions. Or, even as young people ‘try on’ identities, a diligent young Black student may be rejected by his Black peers as “acting white” or a white suburban student may get questioning looks while acting “urban.”
A naturalized Chinese-American businessman may fear his American-born sons are becoming “bananas”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside. As a result, most summers he sends his sons to China so that they are immersed in the food and ways of Shanghai and Changzhou – and yet, they still love pizza.
The people in this article describe cherishing their American-ness and their uniqueness—a uniqueness that has been nurtured by America. In as much as each life is continually unfolding, each defines himself or herself by their beliefs, feelings, accomplishments and more – in a country which itself is constantly evolving.
Identity is never static and labels of identity once common and status quo, in turn fall by the wayside with every generation. Respect, by contrast, remains a value and quality cherished by people throughout history. So, while labels and identities will and should change this does not overshadow the general American values, including respect, held within the wider community, nor the individual choices made to pursue those values.