What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students (Part 3)

Reflections of nine students on the website "What Does It Mean to Be an American?"
nine students headshot Clockwise from top left: Talia Christian, Gracee Curley, Jeana Fermi, Zaynab Jawaid, Koki Mashita, Phoebe Masters, Ellie Sul, Keilyn Toma, Abigail Weiss.

The following is Part 3 of a multiple-part series. For Part 1, please visit here, and for Part 2, please visit here.

On December 8, 2020 and January 19, 2021, SPICE posted two articles that highlight reflections from 16 students on the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” I decided to ask students to share their reflections because many have expressed concern about the divisions in U.S. society either directly to the SPICE staff or indirectly through the teachers with whom the SPICE staff works. Part 3 features nine additional reflections.

The SPICE staff’s hope is that the free educational website—“What Does It Mean to Be an American?”—will help students reflect upon their civil liberties during this challenging time. On March 24, 2021, SPICE’s Rylan Sekiguchi will be honored by the Association for Asian Studies for his authorship of the lessons that are featured on the website, which was developed by the Mineta Legacy Project in partnership with SPICE.

One of the featured students, Keilyn Toma, is an American who is enrolled in SPICE’s Stanford e-Japan course, which introduces U.S. society and culture and U.S.–Japan relations to high school students in Japan. The other eight students live in the United States. The reflections below do not necessarily reflect those of the SPICE staff.

Talia Christian, Texas:
As a multiracial South African immigrant, I’ve had to keenly observe America. I noticed that people in the U.S. come from many different bloodlines. Sadly, the beauty of this is overlooked because so many find peace with the idea that America is a melting pot yet don’t acknowledge what that means. I find myself uncomfortable because I don’t belong to any racial group in America. How will I identify at school? South African isn’t an option. Am I going to live on the White, Hispanic, or Black side of town? Because de facto segregation is very much alive, I must choose. I hope to see change in America as part of being an American, which means that I have the freedom to be that change and instill unity.

Gracee Curley, Arizona:
In today’s world, people seem to be judged by what they do and don’t have, or their race. It seems like after 2020 happened, everyone has a different perspective of America and what it means to be American. To me, being a Native American in the new world today means seeing those “above us” imitating our sacred sound or backing away from us just because of the color of our skin. It means seeing our own culture used as a Halloween costume outfit, and even seeing our people used as school mascots. Being American for me is being scared to go out into public. Nobody wants to be judged in this world just because of one’s ethnicity.

Jeana Fermi, New Jersey:
The American identity is inherently revolutionary, forged in the radical notion that anyone can adopt it, and rooted in the winds of change. Being an American has no strict boundaries; it is an open-ended question that we fill with our own uniqueness and interpretations, thus birthing an identity of synergy. Our nation is not perfect, its history marred by painful legacies of injustice that continue to permeate the society we live in now. But I’ve found a unique hope in the American propensity for change—that the pursuit of progress is not merely optional, but fundamental to being American. The American story is a collective striving to form a more perfect union not in spite of our differences, but because of them. I feel most American when I join this effort.

Zaynab Jawaid, California:
To be American is to be hardworking. My grandmother came to New York in the ’70s and always held multiple jobs. In order to make it in America and provide for her family she had to work hard and always give 110 percent. Hard work may seem difficult at first, but it is always rewarding. My parents have also persevered and worked hard to give my siblings and me a better and easier life than they had. My grandmother and my parents’ example (especially my mother’s) have shown me how hard work always pays off in the end. As an immigrant and a person of color, you have to give that extra effort in order to make it in American society. Being American also means to be able to believe and practice the religion you want, and for me that means Islam.

Koki Mashita, California:
As a Japanese citizen living in the U.S., I have been able to observe cultural differences. The U.S. values individualism, patriotism, and opportunity unlike anywhere else I have lived. Americans often speak up for their own beliefs by protesting. This may make the U.S. seem like an unstable country but speaking up is essential for change. If Americans didn’t love their country, Americans wouldn’t be advocating for their beliefs. An example of this advocacy has taken place during COVID-19, with many Americans, who are struggling to make ends, speaking up. By speaking up, some new opportunities have arisen despite the pandemic. For example, many new businesses that accommodate for restrictions, such as social distancing, have been established. The values of individualism, patriotism, and opportunity come to mind when I think of what it means to be an American.

Phoebe Masters, Ohio:
America is by no means perfect. There are actually times in my life when I have not been very proud to be an American. There are so many problems that plague the country: racial inequities, record high incarceration rates, and corruption in the government. But, being an American means we have the ability to see these imperfections in our country and advocate for change. In America, we have the right to protest and speak out against what we think is wrong and unjust. It is our duty and right to hold lawmakers and government officials accountable for implementing the change we want to see. America is not perfect, but being an American means change, evolution, and innovation as a result of endless ideas and opinions coming together, creating one united nation.

Ellie Sul, California:
To me, being American means taking advantage of every opportunity given. We have a proper education, a gateway to our dream occupations, and a path to our aspirations. Growing up in America, I’ve been given countless possibilities to achieve my dreams. My grandfather, who came to America to seek a better life for his family, gave his children and grandchildren the opportunity to be successful in America. He was like so many other immigrants who crossed oceans to come to America for the greater good of their families. Being American has granted me this life full of fortune and possibilities, and I am eternally grateful.

Keilyn Toma, Japan:
If you were to ask me “Are you American?” I would answer no. I was born in California to Japanese and Chinese parents, but 16 out of my 18 years were spent overseas. I prefer the rice fields of Saitama to the mountains of Utah and the bustling streets of Hong Kong to the avenues of Boston. But perhaps this is the new “American.” The increasingly international fabric of America means more people like me. For me, the American ideals of individuality, opportunity, and freedom serve as support and an instrument of change in whichever culture I choose to be a part of. The opportunity in multiculturalism lies in applying the best parts of different cultures. That means encouraging individuality within Japanese conformity and promoting change within Chinese rigidity. 

Abigail Weiss, Louisiana:
If I was asked what it means to be American growing up, I would likely say I am proud of the country I am from, referencing equality of opportunity and the American Dream. Recently, however, the overwhelming level of injustice in this country has diminished the sense of pride I used to have by being American. I used to gladly dress up on July 4th, but in recent years my friends and I are hesitant to even associate with anyone who posts a picture in front of the American flag. This may not represent the universal experience of young Americans, but I think this does highlight the growing political divide. I think there is still hope for me and many other members of my generation to restore our sense of pride in this country by electing officials who care about the lives of all Americans.

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