Americans can be both different and united

Elephant racing made me a better American.

I turned the station dial on my TV. When I sat down, I found I had missed my station and was watching PBS. Too lazy to get back up, I sat through a travelogue on Thailand.

Jockeys raced elephants across a field. Handlers (pit crew) set things up and dealt with the elephants. The stands were full with men, women, and children. Friends and families were talking, joking, and betting. Vendors walked the stands selling food and drink from the trays they carried. Between heats, there were dancing girls and music acts.

It could have been any sporting event in the USA.

July Fourth is our time to celebrate being American. Ceremonial flag-waving and solemn speeches are juxtaposed with barbeques and flat-screen TV sales. But who is really an American? Most of us believe it is someone like us, but those people in Thailand would fit right in.

Emma Lazarus wrote a poem, “The New Colossus.” It is inscribed on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty. It’s most famous line is “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

This typifies our ideal, that America is truly the land of opportunity. The U.S. is a country based on the consensus of the governed. We are not subjects of a ruler or ruling elite class.

This ideal is something that we all too seldom live up to. Some people feel that the wrong religion makes you Not-An-American. The wrong skin color, a funny accent, weird clothes and many other differences can make someone think of you as Not-An-American.

But of course, that kind of thinking is just wrong.

That elephant race drove home just how alike most people are. So why do so many look at the differences between us as a validation for their own sense of rightness?

My grandparents migrated from Italy before the turn of the 20th century. They never learned to speak English. They lived in an Italian ghetto in New York City.

Why would someone move half way around the world to try to live exactly as they did in the old country? My parents, being second generation, were caught in the middle. They knew of the old country, but had to integrate with the new.

As the third generation, I didn’t care much about Italy. Those Italians were just a bunch of funny-talking strangers. The food was great. Even now, my comfort food is a plate of spaghetti and a glass of Chianti.

I remember going to the street festivals (“Feasts”) celebrating some saint. Most of the activities revolved around food and games, contests and dancing and singing. It was just like Lakefair!

But now I am an American. I like being able to go out for a Thai lunch and eat Italian that evening. The different languages I hear are a reminder of who we really are. The different clothing people wear is all part of our melting pot.

Except for droopy pants showing your underwear. I’m too old to appreciate that one.

Other ethnic groups seem to go through the same process. Succeeding generations too often don’t see the process. Too many feel that they are Real Americans, and anyone different can’t be an American. Too many hang onto the Old Way as some sort of perfection.

Then why move here or stay here if the old way or place is so much better? Those very differences are what make our country unique. Our ideal is to integrate these difference to forge a stronger whole.

So, now that the Fourth is over, perhaps it is a good time to contemplate. Let’s think without the distractions of sales and barbecues and desultory patriotic displays. Think of ways to integrate our differences into our ideal and to celebrate those differences as our ideal.

Originally printed in The Olympian on July 8, 2013