Re-imagining the Self, Re-imagining America

America.gov, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Apr 18, 2009

When he proposed that memorable test of a first-rate intelligence — “hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” — writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was talking about hope and hopelessness and his own fragile mental state. I find that test nevertheless practical as a guide to look at one’s place in our quickly shifting world, and to approach that persistent question of what it means to be an American.

We live indeed in a time far more complex than the one in which our grandparents grew up. Communication technology, breakthroughs in the sciences, the integrated global economy and unprecedented mass movements have unraveled old institutions, shrunk the distances, rendered borders porous and radically altered the way we perceive ourselves and our world.

Let me offer my own biography as example. I was born in Vietnam in the middle of a war, fled to America as a young refugee when it ended, grew up to become an American writer and journalist. Encompassed in that one sentence is a myriad of opposed ideas. The world I knew as a child was defined by clanship, bound to an agrarian-based ethos and the practice of ancestral worship — a sedentary society that viewed the borders as real demarcations, nearly impossible to cross. The world I live in now requires communicating across time zones and hemispheres, traveling from one continent to another and negotiating among different languages, dissimilar cultures and once far-flung civilizations.

If the Vietnamese child was beholden to a singular sense of looking at himself, rooted in the belief that the rice fields and the land was all that ever was, the American adult is a bona fide cosmopolitan. I am American and Vietnamese. I am both a San Franciscan and a citizen of a global society. I am part of a diaspora that spreads itself in the last three decades into 50 countries around the globe. On my Facebook account, I have friends and relatives from four continents. At any given day I communicate — via cell phone, skype, chatroom, email, text messaging — with others from down the street to halfway across the globe.

I am hardly alone. If the famed tower of Babel did long ago fall, it seems now certain that it did not turn into dust. Instead it transmuted into a marvelous horizontal grid of many voices. The Hmong girl in Oakland is texting to her Mexican boyfriend in San Jose who is on Skype with his abuela in Oaxaca. The Austrian H1B technician is talking on the cell phone with his boyfriend in Singapore while chatting on line with his co-workers in Silicon Valley. The teenager who calls herself Blaxican — black father, Mexican mother — is holding hands with her boyfriend who calls himself Japorican — part Japanese and part Puerto Rican — as they push the stroller carrying their global village baby toward some intricate future.

Meanwhile the U.S. demographic is shifting toward a reality where non-white groups are emerging as majorities, undermining what we traditionally held as majority vs. minority, mainstream vs. ethnic. In San Francisco where I live the population is so diverse that no one group constitutes more than 50 percent, but more than 100 languages are spoken on a given day.

Diversity, of course, is nothing new. What is new is at the dawn of the 21st century, we finally overcame our xenophobia, our fear and distrust of “the other” to embrace and celebrate our complexity in an epic and historic way. We elected Barack Obama, son of many soils, and the first U.S. president with a global biography — Muslim father from Kenya, white mother, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia with a half-sister who is part Indonesian and married to a Chinese, half-siblings and a grandmother in Kenya and relatives in Kansas.

Obama, arguably the most famous figure of our time, has opened the door wide to that growing public space in which other Americans with mixed background and complicated biographies — Latino Muslims, black Buddhists, gay Korean Jews, mixed raced children — can celebrate their multi-narrative with audacity. Obama gives us license to embrace our various inheritances and still call ourselves Americans. If F. Scott Fitzgerald told us to hold opposed ideas and function, Obama worked through them and prospered.

We have learned to tolerate and accept pluralism as reality, but we have only begun to realize that it is not just our society that has become decentralized and pluralistic but individuals — multicultured, multiracial, highly interconnected and steeped in media-rich civilization — have themselves become decentralized and pluralistic.

But what holds opposed ideas together? What connects them?

A sense of openness. An acceptance that identity is not fixed in stone but open ended. Eloquence and the imagination, and a willingness to find lines of articulation among differences.

I have said that I’m cosmopolitan but I do not mean I jet-set to five-star hotels around the world. I am someone who endured apprenticeships — l’ve learned to love the English language through years of reading and writing; I have come to embrace French romantic music despite my antipathy toward French colonization; I delight in Japanese anime cultures and am learning Japanese because of it; and I hold an enduring fascination for Vietnam and her contemporary history and continue to find inspiration in her struggle. All this, strangely enough, makes me American.

The essayist Lance Morrow once noted that “the interpretation of America has always been a species of self-discovery.” Every generation needs to redefine and articulate what its American identity means. I am emboldened by President Obama’s biography, for mine too is rooted in numerous particularities and as rich as it is rewarding, and it continues to refute simplification.

Vietnam-born American writer Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media. He recently published the book Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.

Related Articles:

Cultural Misfits & the Language of the Gun

Work, Identity, Culture and Generational Change

My Journey Home

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