Saturday, November 12, 2005

Why Have One When You Can Have Two?

As I left the pub, Eva just told me that my response was typically American. Waldo gave me one kiss good-bye, Eva two.

I said - "Waldo: why only one?"

He said - "Because in Panama it is only one."

Eva responded - "But in Denmark it is two."

I responded - "Why have one when you can have two?"

Eva laughed - "That is very American. To me - that is American
thinking. Why drive a manual when you can drive an automatic?
Why walk when you can drive?"

I laughed - "I drive a stick shift and am damn proud of it."

Eva smiled - "You are different."

I asked - "Why?"

Eva said - "Because you moved to London. Because you have a

Then I remembered that in order to move to London, I had to sell my precious, bright-red Jetta. It's not that it was particularly nice or new or anything... but it was a symbol of freedom for me. It had a sunroof, a bike-rack and a bumpin' stereo. It got me up and down the California coasts; me and everything I owned to Arizona... then Las Vegas... and back up the West Coast. It weathered a DC winter and the New Jersey turnpike all summer. It still had the original John Kerry bumper sticker from the Spring of 2003... along with all of the other Democratic candidates I had worked for since then. It still had its' California plates, the Liz Phair sticker and a lai that had been around the stick since I bought it - in the '90s. What more could a 20-something girl ask for?

But besides just reminiscing about my car that defined much of my existence - this conversation struck me. Not because it was profound, or so unusual. It's that is typical.

It is a common understanding that people often identify more with their country when they travel abroad. They become more nationalistic, more proud because they are able to compare their culture to others' way of life. Naturally, people feel the most comfortable in the culture they were raised in.

Is this feeling what creates a rise of identity politics and strong ties to people's country of origin when they live elsewhere - such as in the States?

I have been reading the work of Samuel Huntington, an insightful and well-established scholar at Harvard who studies American identity and cultural issues in the U.S.

In his 2004 work, "Who Are We? America's Great Debate," Huntington writes at length of the identity crisis that America faces in light of the demographic challenges presented by immigration, the lack of a cohesive 'other' due to the collapse of the Soviet Union (and therefore the end of the Cold War) and the decrease in a consistent American identity.

I disagree with him on most of his conclusions, such that in order to rescue America from decline like that of Rome and Sparta we must recommit ourselves to Anglo-Protestant culture. But I am fascinated by his study of American identity as it stands.

What is American identity? Do we identify most with the governing principles of our Constitution? A shared history? A common language? A certain religious belief?

Or is it is exactly what Eva is referring to: a way of life, a way of thinking?

For me, she is right. It's not that everyone wants to drive used red Jettas, regardless of the bumper stickers that grace it. It's not that you can drive sleepless nights across the U.S. like Kerouac and Ginsberg. It's the symbolism that both represent: everyone wants to have a piece of Americana that is theirs.

It might be the SUV, it might be the road trips. It might be the single-family house or the cliche white picket fence. It could be the mom and pop diner or the stock options in Microsoft. These are things that I don't necessarily identify with... but as an American... I am identified with.

In all these examples, they are material posessions that are only temporily satifying. But if nothing else - it's theirs. It's this sense of identity through ownership and property that seems to be extremely American. If you can claim it as territory, than you have something to be proud of. You have something to invest in, something to work toward. And once we have that - why have one - when you can have two?

by Mara Lee