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Defining American

Sometimes, when I hear a word, images and stories immediately come rushing into my head.


Betsy Ross sewing stars and stripes. Laura Ingalls running across the prairie. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids watching fireworks. The Oregon Trail. Hands on hearts screeching out the Star-Spangled Banner. A picture of Uncle Sam.

“Hey, you!” Uncle Sam says.

I look around.

“You!” He barks. “I want you!”

“Me?” I ask nervously. “For what?”

His index finger points at me accusingly, even though in my culture pointing is a gesture for dogs. I imagine he’s calling me out, saying: “You don’t belong here.” I look into Sam’s eyes at his white hair and beard and creamy skin and realize he’s right. As a mixed race, Chinese-American woman, these stories of America, quite literally, don’t know the half of it.  

Defininf american This  entry also appears on the Minnesota Humanities Center blog. 


Sure, I was told other stories too.

I did a project on Amy Tan once.

I read the book, Finding My Voice by Marie G. Lee, a story of a Korean girl in Minnesota, so many times that the binding broke and the pages fell out.

Sometimes there was a box of Crayola “Multicultural” crayons.

However, looking back, these seem like consolation prizes that punctuated my otherwise invisible representation in the narratives that surrounded me.


People often wax poetic about the squishy concept of the “humanities.” They say they’re “the answer to all our problems,” they are what is meant by “the pursuit of happiness,” they make “life worth living.”

Whose life?

There are stories I wasn’t told.

That even though we often hear America is a “nation of immigrants,” there were indigenous people here long before–and newsflash– they’re still here. That some immigrants did not come here by choice. That being the product of a biracial, bicultural union does not make me a totem for a utopian, post-racial society. That the label of “American” is wrought with complexity. And who uses the label, and when, and why are all questions that do not have definitive answers.


At the Humanities Center when we talk about the humanities we talk mostly about stories—things that illuminate our human connections with one another. Stories are powerful and, as evidenced by my own experience, create images that linger with us the rest of our lives. However, the humanities can only do their magic if they speak to all of our stories. Telling the same stories over and over again does the opposite: creates a limited narrative of what belongs and what is valuable, and conversely, what doesn’t and what isn’t.

It’s what writer Chimamanda Adiche refers to as “The danger of a single story.”


There are stories I could have been told.

I could have been told stories of America’s history that aren’t a series of binary ones and zeroes—American Indians vs. Colonists, United States vs. England, North vs. South, Black vs. White, Haves vs. Have-nots, Truth vs. Lies, Good vs. EviI, Winners vs. Losers. Stories of the in-between. If I had been told these, might I have found room for my own intersectional identity within the American narrative in my head?


Because of their power, I think there is a sort of a protective feeling over stories. Like the time and space for sharing is finite and that for one story to have value, all others must be erased. This concept in itself, I think, is also the result of a powerful message that asserts that we don’t have time for these tough conversations and questions. That aiming for simplification should be valued over honoring complexity and nuance.

So, how do the humanities define me as an American?

For me, they haven’t, yet.

However, the beauty of the humanities is that they could.

Continuing to interrogate the stories we have been told to make the space for broadening existing narratives opens up that possibility. I, of course, have my own work to do: raising my own voice into these spaces; listening to others; hearing and accepting stories that might go against everything I know to be true.

And, always looking for what’s missing—the absent narrative—and then uncovering it, and having the conversation again makes work longer and more complex. Sometimes it gives us more questions than answers. It might require rescheduling that meeting, rewriting the book, missing a deadline, and, in my case, more than a few Diet Cokes.

However, if it means that more people like me hear: “You matter” and feel “you matter here”…

…well, that’s everything.