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The Idea of America

By Catherine Pavia

American flag flying with sun behind itThis morning I was searching for something to do in our 4th of July celebration to bring a bit of meaning to our traditional barbecue, water games, and fireworks. Despite my frustrations with the many imperfections of my country, I have a strong love for it, a love that has emerged and deepened through explorations of its cities and wilderness, through experiences living outside the United States, through study of its history, and through stories of ancestors who fought for it or who fought to get to it.

In my searching for something simple to add to our celebration, I came across this 8-minute video clip that details Prager University’s simple Independence Day ritual. In the video clip, Dennis Prager says, “America is more than a place–it’s an idea.”

My post for Segullah 3 years ago talks about different connotations of “American.” The following excerpts are from that post:

*During my third year of grad school, I was assigned to teach a class I hadn’t taught or heard of before: “The American Experience,” a literature class for non-English majors. Planning the class was both exciting and excruciating because, as we all know, there is no singular “American experience.” Of all the possible American experiences, which should I include in the class? Of course, that was the point of the class in the first place: asking questions about what it means to be an American and what counts as American experience requires engagement with the histories of conquest, expansion, immigration, and nation-building as well as with concepts, like individualism, self-creation, and alienation.

*As a 19-year-old, studying abroad in Austria and away from home for my first fourth of July, I planned a little rooftop dinner with friends and my Austrian family. I experimented countless times trying to make chocolate chip cookies with no recipe, no chocolate chips, and Austrian ingredients and measuring devices. Chocolate chip cookies represented home to me. They were decidedly American.

* When I was in high school, we had a foreign exchange student from Mexico. She lived with us and my older sister went to Mexico to live with her family. In the short time that she lived with us, my mom carefully planned a trip to Yellowstone. In my mom’s mind, the national parks are what’s American. This girl could not go back to Mexico having been so close to Yellowstone (5 hours) and not have seen it. But our exchange student seemed much more interested in the Madonna cd I had brought for the drive. Madonna. That’s what was American to her.

* My first semester of grad school, I took a course on literacy and orality. For one project, I interviewed different members of my family and my husband’s family to write a kind of family history of literacy practices. When I called my husband’s Italian grandma, I asked her why she does not speak fluent Italian—after all, her parents emigrated from Italy with their children. “Once they got to America,” she told me, “They stopped speaking Italian to us. Only English. They spoke Italian to each other. We were American then,” she said, “we spoke English and changed our name.”( They changed the pronunciation of their name from “Pavia” with a soft “a” to “Pavia” with the same “a” sound as in “pave.” In their minds, the long a sound was American.)

These are all small, concrete examples of changing ideas of what is “American.” Does the same hold true for you about “American” in general? Is the United States more than a place for you? If so, how? What are you celebrating or thinking of this 4th of July weekend?
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About Catherine Pavia

(Prose Board) has worked as a cherry sorter, file girl, piano teacher, writer, editor, and college professor. She currently works full-time as the art director, events planner, chauffeur, and referee for her four children. She spends a good deal of her time running—be it down the supermarket aisle after an escaped child, around the living room in a heated game of flag football, or on early-morning runs/therapy sessions with her neighborhood friends. She earned her BA and MA in English from BYU and her PhD in English from UMass Amherst.

4 thoughts on “The Idea of America”

  1. Catherine, we've never had any particular 4th of July traditions, and for some reason this year I was feeling the lack. I wanted to do something simple to acknowledge the day. The link you shared was perfect – easy to do, meaningful but not overdone. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Excellent link! Our family really enjoyed it and even my currently less- active ,questioning everything about religion and culture son expressed appreciation for America and the hope it represents!

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  3. Glad you both liked it! My kids did too!

    The emphasis on ritual and eating things to represent other things actually reminded me a lot of the Jewish Seder, which I also find meaningful.

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  4. I appreciate how you have brought in the aspect of a psychoanalytical lens to show how the face of America seems to be different for each individual. The tale of your husband’s grandmother and what her parents did when they emigrated over was particularly powerful to me. It seems that in order to meet what one views as the American dream and what America should be, one changes one’s nature and even one’s own name to become the embodiment of what they perceive America to be. Or in the case of the exchange student, one immerses one’s self in what one views as the culture of America. Rather than seek out the wonders of nature that your mother felt defined America, she sought out the music that seemed to have that distinct American feel to her.

    Personally, I am of the opinion that America has many faces and many pieces that make it what it is. Practicing one’s religion freely, whatever it may be, is American. Working hard for a living is American. Speaking freely without fear of physical oppression for what you say is American. And I believe a respect and a love for your fellow man would have to be the most American of all. The United States is my country and my home and I know the privileges which I have here are not to be taken lightly. This country represents a promised land of hope and opportunity to me and to many who come here. I met a man who fled across the border from Mexico to come here while I was on my mission. He was a good and honest man who wanted to provide for his family and to give them a good life here. Unfortunately, he was deported and his family had to remain in the states. But it goes to show how valuable the freedom and safety that this nation provides is to others. Thank you for getting me to consider these things, Catherine. Your questions were very insightful and helpful. I am definitely proud and grateful to be an American.

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