What is my national identity?
We asked six people living in the U.S. from different backgrounds to share what shaped them
Proud of my roots
Adam Haileyesus, Georgia
I was born in the country of Ethiopia. A couple weeks ago I was asked whether I identify more as African or American. At first, I was quite surprised — I have honestly never been asked this intriguing question before in my life.
I have always thought of myself as Ethiopian, but considering I left the country after just four months and have resided in Georgia for the past 21 years without yet returning to my home country, I had to take a minute to think before answering.
My response, which caught my mother by surprise, was that I affiliate more as Ethiopian. Yes, I have primarily been surrounded by Americans, I have gone to private school where the vast majority of my peers are Americans, and yes, most of my friends are Americans. However, that does not necessarily make me who I am.
When I come home, I see pieces of African art, I can hear my parents speaking in our native tongue, and I indulge in our delicious native food that my mom cooks. To me, home is where the heart is. I am extremely grateful to be living in America, but when asked where I am from, I am proud to say Ethiopia.
Celebrate the variety
Marie Seibert, Pennsylvania
My ancestors have been in the U.S. for several generations, so although we happily note that we have Irish ancestors (especially on St. Patrick’s Day!), the only time I really note that I am “Irish” is when it comes to discussions about pale Irish skin that can’t be in the sun!
I have three grandparents who were Irish and one who was Slovakian. This is one of the joys of the U.S.: many of us are “part this and part that.” We can celebrate the rich variety of the whole world in our own bodies and our families.
I never met my Slovakian grandmother; she passed away before I was born. She lived in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, and I understand that she was very social.
Many of the family traditions that have been handed down from her involve recipes that are not actually Slovak; she borrowed them from her Polish or Italian or Irish neighbors. This is a great blessing, and makes me feel that I am American.
Values of both countries
Martin Alfaro, Florida
I lived the first half of my life in Costa Rica. I grew up in a family of six children, with close ties to the members of my numerous extended family, and with a very close relationship with our neighbors. It felt as if we were all one big family, where the traditional values of caring, respecting and protecting each other were always present.
I married an American citizen and together with our two daughters emigrated to the U.S., where I have lived the second half of my life.
Although I still live by my Costa Rican values, American values such as directness and openness in speaking, practicality, efficiency, work orientation, equality and fairness, self-help and initiative, and appreciation of diversity, have permeated my way of being through time.
Now my personal identity is not only molded by my Costa Rican values but also by values from the country where my four grandchildren have been born.
I can see how American I am when I visit Costa Rica or any other country, but I can also see my Costa Rican heritage strongly rooted in my life.
All it stands for
Mike Morse, Texas
When my father passed away, as customary for someone who was in the U.S. military, the family was given a U.S. flag. Due to the circumstances, no other family members showed a great interest in taking it, so I did.
It was the first time I had one, and it inspired me once again to think about what it represents. It sparked in me an appreciation for my being American.
Certainly, over the years aspects of the culture has changed and has been at times veiled by negative events, but it hasn’t taken away the culture I was raised in and all its gifts and beauty.
We recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day in grammar school. We learned our history. The Star Spangled Banner can be often heard at sports games, “What so proudly we hailed …”
Yes, I am proud of the accomplishments of our forefathers, the tradition passed down, what was lost and what was gained, and always hoping that we draw closer and closer to all it stands for: liberty and justice for all.
Yes, I truly see and identify myself as a proud American.
Finding a balance
Tochukwu Awachie, Georgia
I didn’t know how to pronounce my name before ninth grade. Neither did most people. I answered to any attempt and prayed for no follow-up questions.
An American-born child of African immigrants, I grew up with Anambra, Nigeria in my living room and Atlanta down the street. I was terrified of carrying the scent of palm oil on my school uniform, as I was off tracking the faintest hint of Ebonics across the threshold of my house.
I grew up feeling more undeniably “other” than both my parents and peers.
I have since learned the inflections in my name, but untrained tongues continue delivering discordant variations, giving my other-ness her funhouse reflection.
In Nigeria, it is my tongue that is out of tune. Despite my Bantu nose and Igbo name, even within a sea of sun-beaten brown skin, I am oyibo. A foreigner. My other-ness does not sleep.
It’s strange to have two homes, and feel like a visitor in both, but I take pride in my unique incorporation of each into the self that walks through the world. I have grown tired of running between the poles of a hyphenated existence.
I now strive for balance on the beam between them.
“What are you?”
Lisa Primus, New York
Being Egyptian and American, my identity is closely tied to both the life I lived in Egypt and the life I live in the U.S. Unfolding my identity has been a lifelong journey, with much divine intervention and encouragement along the way.
One of the most significant experiences occurred when I was in the fourth grade. It was recess, and all the students were going outside to play. I was new to the school and new to the country, having recently emigrated with my family from Egypt.
Walking to the playground, I was approached by a group of students and asked, “What are you?” I quickly answered, “A girl!” They continued: “But what are you?” Confused, I mumbled, “A human.”
My response didn’t satisfy them and was followed by “Where are you from?” I proudly announced that I was from Egypt. “But what are you,” they pressed.
One girl noticed the look of confusion on my face, moved closer towards me and got to the point. “Are you black or white?” I didn’t understand. In Egypt, you are identified primarily by your religion. I had no concept of race.
“You have to choose,” she said. “Black or white, you can’t be both.” I couldn’t answer. Why did I have to choose? Why was it so important for them? Why couldn’t we just play? From that moment, I became attuned to race: how it is defined, how it defines us. How it is both real and fallacy. How it frames our experience and flavors our stories.
For too long, the ethnic complexity of the U.S. society has been submerged, hidden by a discussion that counts only race as important and only black or white as the predominant subjects.
If you have an identity that doesn’t neatly fit into these racial categories, how do you experience the world? How do others see you? How do you see yourself?
“What are you?”