How I Discovered My American Identity

Many Americans never discover their American identity until they befriended non-Americans. I am one of those many. This is my story of patriotic discovery that began back when I wanted nothing to do with America and ended in the international corridor of my university.

Like it is for so many American youths, July 4th never felt like a genuine experience to me. I would wave a 99-cent flag on a California beach and laugh while acting like an "Merican." But it was all pretend, because at my core I didn't feel American.

I didn't feel it, because I didn't want to be it. When I looked at the people who most loudly claimed to be American, I saw the students at my then school who were mean, simple minded and bullied the gay kids. And as with many progressives, my definition of Americanism became these people.

So I grew up thinking anyone who was patriotic (outside the military) was a racist-sexist-homophobic-backward hyper conservative. So I read the Howard Zinn my teachers assigned and wondered why any rational person would be proud to be from such an oppressive country.

And every July 4th, I would find myself again at the fireworks, inserting progressive messages into patriotic songs and like this teenage gem, "Because I am proud to be an American where I least I know I am free because I am white, privileged and a straight man. But even this society, tells me exactly what a man should be, so maybe I am not even that free."

Little did I know that I was about to discover my American identity. I would stay the same progressive person, but in the most unlikely of places, I would find myself soon proudly calling myself an American.

In 2010, I moved 2,500 miles to Duke University and joined a graduate school that is one of the most diverse programs of its kind. Immediately, my friends were Burmese, Chinese, Chilean, Canadian, Dutch, Indian, Korean, Peruvian, Turkish and the list went on. They were all very different, but they all had one thing in common: a genuine love for their national culture.

For them, national and cultural pride wasn't something wrong or shameful. Even though the Turks disliked their governments and the Koreans were frustrated with their stringent education system, all that did not stop them from loving so many other parts of their countries.

And so excitedly we all began sharing and enjoying one another's culture in conversation and cultural activities. Amongst the sharing, I quickly discovered how very American I actually was and how much of America I wanted to share with my international friends.

Much of this discovery came from small and seemingly silly things. I grilled people their first hamburger and watched their eyes light up. I held "Orphaned Thanksgiving" for all my international friends and later that year explained March Madness Basketball to them. And as I saw how much my Chinese friends enjoyed their culture through a simple night of hotpot, I started to realize through my everyday activities and food I was also enjoying my culture.

Yet, it was more than my rituals, it was my personality that made me truly feel American. I discovered just how loud, flashy and friendly I comparatively was, and even though some of my international friends were loud, flashy and friendly, they were so in ways more distinctive of their own cultures.

Even my Ph.D dissertation was American in its ambitious flashy style, in its focus on a big story rather than technical nuance, and in its topic, "the pursuit of fun." And as a Californian I had Hollywood dreams and certain American narratives ingrained in me in ways I just didn't realize.

For my entire life, I'd always been around Americans, so I had never understood how comparatively American I was. Sure everything about me was more "European" than most Americans I knew, but for better or worse so much of me was American.

And then on one evening when I first took my Turkish friends to eat ice-cream on the porch of a countryside shop I just fully realized it. Watching the fireflies flicker in a June sunset over a cornfield, I thought to myself, "Wow I really am American. And I kind like it."

At Duke, there's this skylit international corridor complete with nearly every national flag, all glimmering together in the sun. Walking under those flags, I discovered my American identity. Not because I felt competitive with the other countries, not because I felt the USA was better, but because under all those flags I just felt American and felt those stars and stripes did represent me and that I represented it.

You may also like Troy's July 4th, 2013 post on "Progressive Patriotism"

Troy Campbell is a social psychology researcher at Duke University and the Center for Advanced Hindsight. For a more scientific take on the current article's topic, click here.