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Apr 06 2011

American on the Outside

[TMI Warning]

Lately I’ve noticed that when I talk to people about my national identity, they tend to assume that I consider myself American. For instance, I’ll say that I’m Russian and Israeli, and they’ll add “and American” without any prompting from me. I keep wondering why this is, and it brings up some interesting issues about immigration and that whole thing.

I suppose the “ideal” of immigration is that you come to a new country, become a citizen, and renounce your prior ethnic identity. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many European immigrants who came to the United States did just that. For this reason, most people in the United States today call themselves “Americans,” despite the fact that, except for Native Americans, there really isn’t such a thing as an “American.”

However, I have to admit that I don’t fall into this pattern. My heart just isn’t here. It’s back home in Israel. And although I may “look” like a normal American–I dress, eat, speak, and entertain myself like one–my worldview and way of interacting with people certainly aren’t. For instance, like most Russians, I tend to show off my knowledge and intelligence rather than hiding it, and like most Israelis, I tend to be blunt and open about my beliefs and opinions rather than toning them down a notch like Americans do. For this reason, Americans tend to see me as conceited and overly opinionated, whereas Russians and Israelis never do. After all, the cultural norms are just different. Russians don’t show off their intelligence because they think they’re better than others; rather, they simply don’t have a culture that shames and belittles smart people. In the United States, the assumption tends to be that if you’re acting smart and using lots of big words, you’re probably full of yourself, because if you weren’t, you’d keep that side of yourself hidden like everyone else does.

Similarly with the whole opinion thing. In Israel, if you’re not sharing your opinions, you’re weird. In the US, you’re polite. I always found it funny how things like religion and politics are almost considered “taboo” topics in the US. After all, they’re so interesting and generate so many great discussions, so why wouldn’t people want to talk about them? Americans, unlike Israelis, shy away from any sort of conflict and confrontation. I’ve met plenty of people here who disagree with me, but very few who will actually admit it.

Those are just two examples. Obviously, I could go on and on. I’m reminded of my status as a foreigner every time friends reminisce about American kids’ shows that I never saw or a popular band from the 70s that their parents made them listen to, but mine didn’t. I’m reminded of it every time I find that I can’t stomach a particular American food (hamburger and hot dog buns, the combination of sweet and salty, pork ribs), and every time I look at the culture around me and find it, quite frankly, appalling (the media’s influence on eating disorders, the virgin/whore dichotomy for women, and so on). Although I’ve learned to “act American” for the most part, there are many aspects of my personality that I refuse to let go of, and they mark me as an outlier in this particular culture.

In short, I don’t think that the fact that I’ve ended up living in the United States due to circumstances beyond my control automatically makes me an American. I’m not even a citizen, for starters, and the only reason I’m going to stay here after I graduate is because I’ve learned how to survive here and don’t want to learn it all over again in Israel. I am a Russian Israeli living in America. Not an American.

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