“Now, hypothetically,” says my British professor as only a British professor can, “let us say that Kristina the American decides to go to missions in France. And Kristina the American, no, Kristina the Minnesotan, gets on a plane and goes…” It is only a scenario made up by one of my professors to illustrate something for the class. He scrawls out a Venn diagram on the whiteboard with a circle labeled “M” for Minnesota, and another overlapping circle labeled “F” for France and begins to talk about cultural overlap, how some things would be shared between Minnesotan and French culture and others not. But I confess that for a moment I am not listening. I am caught up in the idea of being identified as a Minnesotan. And I like it.
Living in Singapore, my first obvious characteristic that people notice is that I’m Caucasian, which isn’t terribly uncommon around here, but enough to be different (we’re part of that 1.4% “other”). The second, which comes out as soon as I open my mouth, is that I’m American (as opposed to British, Australian, French or German, other common options). However, being American is problematic, as far as identity goes, for two reasons.
First, when people approach you as an “American” they do so with certain stereotypes and preconceptions. These may be positive or negative, and they may be right or wrong, but, because America tends to export itself globally and without restraint, they are usually very strong. However, these stereotypes are incapable of encompassing what it means to be American as a whole because America is so diverse. So people will ask me “How do Americans feel about gun control?” or something like that. Such questions are impossible to answer simply, and my usual response is “Well, which Americans? East Coast, South, Midwest, or West Coast? Urban or Rural? Liberal or Conservative?”
Secondly, because the idea of being American is so vague and large, it is a very difficult thing to personally identify with. When I say I’m American what does that mean, not just to the people who interact with me, what does it mean TO ME? And the short answer is, I don’t know. Some American characteristics I can identify with, like liberty and justice for all and so on. Others, however, I don’t identify with, such as materialism or individualism.
Because of this, I have tended in my time here in Singapore to veer away from the label “American” and towards my home state, Minnesota, instead. So when people ask “Do Americans value their extended families?” I can answer, “Well, it differs around American, but at least in Minnesota, people tend to not move far from home and to be pretty involved in their extended families.” This is something tangible, something familiar, and something near enough that I can both identify it and identify WITH it. What are Americans like? I don’t know. Most of them are foreigners to me. But Minnesotans, ah, I can tell you what they, what we, are like.
So, while I’m not ashamed (usually) of being an American and I don’t hide my nationality, I have discovered a greater pride and sense of identity with being Minnesotan. America is my country, but Minnesota is my homeland.