What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students (Part 4)

Reflections of eight students on the website "What Does It Mean to Be an American?"
eight students headshot Clockwise from top left: Kaliʻu Boteilho, Santiago Calderon, Selina Chen, Haley Goto, Kyle Kotanchek, Faizah Naqvi, Rylynn Toyama, Samantha Williams

The following is Part 4 of a multiple-part series. For Part 1, please visit here, for Part 2, please visit here, and for Part 3, please visit here.

On December 8, 2020, January 19, 2021, and March 16, 2021 SPICE posted three articles that highlight reflections from 25 students on the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” I have decided to continue the series based on the enthusiastic engagement that I have felt from students and teachers from throughout the United States. Part 4 features eight 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 was 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.

For part 4, a special effort was made to include some reflections of students of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent since May is AAPI heritage month. The reflections below do not necessarily reflect those of the SPICE staff.

Kaliʻu Boteilho, Hawaii
As a Hawaiian language speaker, something that I’ve always understood and live by is a Hawaiian proverb that says “‘A‘ole pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho’okahi” or “All knowledge is not taught in the same school, one can learn from many sources.” Much like this proverb says, we are not all from the same school, place, or background. We all have different ethnicities, races, and religious beliefs, yet in America we’re able to live side by side and coexist. To me being an American not only means to respect people’s beliefs but to uphold the integrity of my country, my home, and most of all my people. Being an American is an honor, but I shall not forget who I truly am...a Hawaiian.

Santiago Calderon, Florida
Many people in Latin America think of Whites as the stereotypical American. I have been perceived as White due to my palish skin despite my proud Venezuelan and Peruvian heritage. Regardless of how I have been perceived, I am proud of America’s unique ability to diffuse diverse talents, perspectives, and cultures as a point of opportunity and refuge. Of course, America isn’t perfect. Someone once told me to stop speaking Spanish because this is an “English-only” country, but my passion is to continue fighting for my American dream while contributing to a better society for other Americans, regardless of their biases about me. Working at my parents’ Latin restaurant, I engage in conversations with customers visiting from all over the world to share ideas with others, bonded not by ethnic background but by our pride as Americans.

Selina Chen, California
A year ago, I received my U.S. passport, a blue booklet with a silver eagle that replaced my red one with “People’s Republic of China.” Yet I can’t think of myself as “American” in entirety because I’m only comfortable with using the adjective for certain traits or parts of my personality. My full identity, rather, is “Chinese-American,” perhaps because my entire American experience has been during the pandemic, in which, initially, my identity meant being too scared to cough or to wear a mask after the first time someone hollered “Corona!” at me and, now, the weight of pepper spray is in my pocket wherever I go. But although society deems that my appearance is the most defining part of me, being “American” means the opportunity to right this wrong.

Haley Goto, Hawaii
As a Japanese American growing up in Hawaii, I was surrounded by people of different ethnicities and the idea of “‘ohana”—being family with those in my community. My world was small, but now as a teenager, I realize America’s pressing issues of racism and injustice. What happened to the famous “all men are created equal”? Why is there so much disunity in the “United” States of America? To me, being American means being a part of this large country as one great ‘ohana, embracing the diversity that makes our nation unique with different ideas, races, and cultures. “Patriotism” should mean respecting and devoting oneself to America’s diversity. The amazing thing about America is we have the freedom to choose to support diversity over division and respect over ego.

Kyle Kotanchek, California
The foundation of the United States is the Constitution, but I believe the 1st Amendment is what really makes our nation the United States of America. The freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition together are in essence the freedom to change people’s minds. We aren’t the only country with these freedoms, but we were the first to have all five specified in a constitution. The United States doesn’t always hold up these freedoms, and we’re far from perfect, but we’re also far from completely broken. The January 6th insurrection proved the United States’ vulnerability to ideas, while the Black Lives Matter movement showed our resilience and fighting desire for equality. The United States is the land of the people, and it’s up to Americans to decide whether we create good or evil.

Faizah Naqvi, New Jersey
There’s nothing about my appearance that suggests I’m American. However, after a conversation with me, it’s apparent that I am—because I’m not afraid to speak my mind. This is in stark contrast to my culture, where women are traditionally quiet. It’s the American part of me that is outspoken, and the American half that chooses to address controversy. What’s unique about being American is that you don’t have to choose between your nationality and heritage—being American enhances your ability to advocate for your own culture. The spirit of American duality inspires me to face controversial topics head on, fielding vitriolic comments. America is not perfect—racial inequality, polarized politics, and systemic imbalances plague the country—but there’s something to be said for the way America makes those who were once invisible shine.

Rylynn Toyama, Hawaii
As a 13-year-old Asian American who has lived in Hawaii all my life, my idea of what being an American means has been largely shaped by my family and local community. Like America at large, Hawaii is home to many cultures and ethnicities. Here, we embrace the differences of our multicultural population, enjoying traditions and cuisines from all over the world. Unfortunately, some Americans disdain races other than their own, which leads to hate crimes and violence. These aggressive acts do not depict my ideal America. My vision of a true American is a person who respects and supports his fellow citizens by treating them with care and kindness, as they would their own family. Every American should be willing to protect the freedom and individuality of all citizens. To me, that is what it means to be an American.

Samantha Williams, California
A few years ago, I would have said that being an American means having the freedom to lead a life full of opportunities and having the ability to achieve anything you desire. After experiencing a year that no one could have predicted—full of protests, demonstrations, and racial injustice—I now realize that these opportunities are not afforded to all Americans equally and that they vary among racial and socioeconomic lines. Personally, it has recently meant that I have the ability to work towards my goals, have some sense of equality, and the freedom to voice my opinions. I have hope that we, as Americans, can exercise our freedoms by speaking our minds, implementing change, and fighting for all to receive equal rights.

Read More

nine students headshot

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?"
cover link What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students (Part 3)
seven students headshot

What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students (Part 2)

Reflections of eight students on the website "What Does It Mean to Be an American?"
cover link What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students (Part 2)
eight students headshot

What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students

Reflections of eight students on the website "What Does It Mean to Be an American?"
cover link What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students