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Why Americans Never Call Themselves Just "Americans"

United States
by Matt Hershberger Jun 10, 2014

I was in a London pub, and, being an American, I couldn’t quite place the guy’s accent.

“Where you from?” I asked.

“Dublin,” he said.

“Ah!” I said, “I’m Irish too!”

He gave me a tired smile and said, “You sound pretty fuckin’ American to me. Why is it every American says they’re Irish even though they’ve never been to Ireland?”

“A few of my great-great-grandparents were Irish. I’m actually more like 37.5% Irish,” I said. “And like, a quarter German, a quarter Scottish, a sixteenth Dutch, and a sixteenth French.”

“You’re allowed to just say you’re American, man.”

Okay, fair enough. A real Irishman would’ve known he was speaking in an Irish accent. And maybe would know more about Ireland than what he learned from a two-hour walking tour of Dublin and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. But I’m Irish, goddammit. My mom made us corned beef and cabbage on St. Patty’s when we were growing up, and my grandpa sang “Galway Bay” whenever he’d had a drink or two. He’d never been to Ireland himself, but the heritage was there. What’s national heritage if not lyric memorization?

Europeans have a difficult time with Americans who say they’re “from” their country, and then give complex genealogical breakdowns of which long-forgotten ancestor actually lived there. The frustration is that, rather than meeting an actual kinsman who can actually talk to you about your shared heritage and homeland, you’re getting a burger-eating, baseball-watching, corn-fed bubba telling you about his family tree. It’s like being forced to watch a slideshow without any of the pictures.

But we’re not going to stop doing it anytime soon. The official American narrative is that we are a “melting pot” of diverse cultures, all coming together and assimilating into a single American culture, but that’s never been totally accurate. We are probably much closer to a “chunky stew,” as Philip Glass once said (I actually found an article claiming we’re more of a vindaloo). Basically, we’re all in the same pot, but we’ve never fully assimilated.

A recent map demonstrated how Americans have formed cultural pockets based on their original language and ethnicity, by showing the most common languages spoken behind English and Spanish by state:

As my last name suggests, I’m of German descent patrilineally, and I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, which has so many German immigrants that an old canal that used to run through the city was nicknamed the Rhine. To be fair, my family never spoke German, and I don’t know anyone who did — but shadows of the city’s former German culture remain. There’s a lot of sausage and sauerkraut in Cincinnati, there are still tunnels under the streets where they used to store kegs of beer, and we throw the country’s biggest Oktoberfest, even though we’ve perverted it slightly by placing way more emphasis than is necessary on the Chicken Dance.

Looking from the outside, it’s easy to dismiss America’s obsession with our hyphenated heritage as silly or unnecessary, but “American” isn’t a heritage in the same way that “German,” “Irish,” “Japanese,” or “Persian” are. America has done a decent job of creating its own, distinct American culture. We have somewhat common ideals, we have our own sports and music and culture, and we have a somewhat common history. Even the parts of our history that aren’t shared are somehow made a part of our identity — that’s what the whole idea of the “melting pot” is for.

But to be an American, you have to do something that people of other countries have never had to do: You have to figure out how you fit into America. And that can be difficult. If you don’t agree with mainstream American political beliefs, you’re missing one major component of that American heritage. If you come from one of the many groups that has been marginalized by that shared American history — whether it be because of your gender, class, ethnicity, skin color, or sexual orientation — it can be hard to see how you fit into America. And if you don’t subscribe to the more mainstream American Protestant religious life, it can feel like you’re not quite American.

The easy thing to do is fall back into the heritage of your ancestors, rather than trying to force yourself into a culture that doesn’t quite seem to fit.

For me, I tend to think of myself as American. But when I went to Ireland for a couple days with my little sister, I remember one moment clearer than all the rest. As I walked up to the immigration desk, an old customs agent took my passport, opened it up, and looked down at my middle name:

“Donovan?” he said, “Sounds like you’ve got some Irish in yeh.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but way back, like 150 years.”

He flipped to an open page, stamped it, and said, “Welcome home, lad.”

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