This essay was written on November 15, 2016. It is Part One of a two-part essay series on identity. Part Two, “Italianizzata” is included in the January 2021 Issue of the Open Doors Review. Click here to read the Magazine.
By Rachel Zitin
Seven days ago I woke up to horrible news. Donald J. Trump, famous for his reality TV shows and failed businesses has been elected as the president of the United States of America. Yes. This has brought up a whole range of emotions, feelings, reactions and fears for me and all of my other fellow Americans.
And there it is, ‘my’ fellow Americans. As a country and a population the United States seems to have accidentally/on-purpose divided itself into two populations. Two groups. Two ideologies. Two completely opposite sections of people who both think that their vision, their dreams and their hopes for America are the “true” America and the way to move forward.
Growing up in an open-minded progressive family in Asheville, NC I still remember my shock, at age 16, when I discovered that the sweet bartender who worked at the Mexican restaurant where I was a hostess was, gasp, a Republican. That was during the Bush years and I could not have been less attached to my identity as an American and more appalled at the Republicans and America in general. It was two years after we started saying “freedom fries” instead of french fries, a period in history when M&Ms were mass-producing red, white and blue candy themed to bring out the patriot in all of us. I was not a Patriot. I was ashamed of the things that my country was doing. I barely celebrated the 4th of July and saw the flag waving gun-toting others as “America” and me as…well, in high school identity is a tricky thing anyway. What I did know was I definitely was not patriotic and therefore, I was not proud of my country.
In high school, I was able to oppose the system, I was allowed to be unpatriotic. When I studied history, my natural conclusion was to blame America for the bad in the world. While I may have been overexaggerated in those adolescent conclusions, it goes without saying that there is a string of meddlesome American policies in recent history that certainly don’t promote patriotism, at least they didn’t in me. High school allowed me the luxury to try on different identities, it’s fair to say while I rejected my American identity I was also actively rejecting being a part of the system that elected George W. Bush. I was not attached to my identity as American. My friends weren’t especially patriotic either and it was easy to simply dismiss identifying with a country, period.
My freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill introduced me to a whole new world. A world filled with people who had lived in other countries, who had different cultural backgrounds, who had different politics. I made friends with people whose parents were Republicans, friends whose parents loved the current president (George W. Bush) and because I was trying to fit in in a new environment, I didn’t engage in a lot of active debate. To be honest, I don’t think I spent any time thinking about my cultural identity. I know I was not aware that being American was not an identity I could just slough off. Similar to how I am 5’9, my name is Rachel, I have brown hair, my parents are Maureen and Stuart, I am also American.
My junior year in college, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires. I realized that there was this whole world of young people from all over the globr who thought like me and similarly disliked their political systems and leaders and countries. We were all in agreement that America was the most shameful. The one where George W. Bush was still the dopiest and most embarrassing public speaker that has ever emerged from American politics. I often heard this: “Rachel’s American, but….” it was a way of saying I was cool. I wasn’t *too* American. You could tell me my country sucked and I would openly and emphatically agree. It became a second part of my identity. “I am American, but… “ the identity of being an American who isn’t very “American” became my brand new title. In the meantime, I learned about British culture and Argentine culture and French culture and immersed myself in this new fun international world where I got to prove people wrong about Americans because, hey, they liked me!
Just as I had thoroughly and completely immersed myself in being ‘American, but’ a new election cycle began. With that election cycle came a candidate who made me start to question my own dislike of America and American culture and American values. After all, I may have spent 6 month in Argentina but I had spent my whole life in America. It was just a little bit cool having a candidate who stood for some of the things that me, my parents, my friends, and even my international friends valued and agreed upon. Barack Obama slowly changed my views on being American in the time from his candidacy to him being elected as the first black president of the United States of America. My appreciation of Obama was personal too, his politics and his message made me more proud to identify as an American.
Less than a year after Obama became president I moved to Rome. Living in Italy as an ex-pat, I became more and more attached to being American. Prouder of my country. Aware that there were still flaws but hopeful and positive and excited about all the good things coming out of America. Open-minded Americans filled my social media and I marveled at the start-up culture and the legalization of gay marriage and all the things about American life that I appreciated so much.
I loved showing my Italian boyfriend the history of the US. I loved taking him to the civil rights museum in Memphis and teaching him about MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks and knowing that we had a black president and so we were progressive. I loved telling him stories about American history, telling him about the American Civil War and crying with him through ‘12 Years a Slave’. I loved going to a Gumbo Festival in New Orleans and feeling like it represented ‘my culture’ as much as a sagra in Italy represents Italian food culture. I loved telling him about my grandparents’ politics and how my dad was arrested for the first time while protesting the Vietnam War. I loved taking him to the elementary school that my brilliant mom started and telling him about my early education and my mom’s passion for learning. I loved sitting at a table with him and my parents and talking about global politics and American politics and criticizing our governments but also (occasionally) praising them. I loved talking about all the things in US history that I find near, dear, or interesting. I, for the first time in my life, really loved being American and identifying as American. My identity as American was cemented. Rachel’s American, but…she lives in Italy.
It was a meshing of cultures, an open declaration that I was absolutely still American despite living in Italy. And now…?
*Writer’s note: I wrote this essay in November, 2016. I never finished it. Rather than creating an ending four years later, I’ve chosen to leave it as a “to be continued”, just like the narrative of all of our lives. To Read Part Two from the January 2021 Issue of the Open Doors Review, Click here.
Author Bio: Rachel grew up in Asheville, NC and accidentally moved to Rome in 2009. Her adoration for Italian culture grows incrementally with each passing year. She is an avid yogi and yoga instructor. She also works as a tour guide and is passionate about creating and curating retreats and wellness experiences all around Italy. Website: www.rachelzitin.com