What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students (Part 5)

What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students (Part 5)

Reflections of eight students on the website "What Does It Mean to Be an American?"
headshots of eight high school students Clockwise from top left: Giyonna Bowens, Austin Akira Fujimori, Eddie Shin Fujimori, Nāliʻipōʻaimoku Harman, Lanakila Jones, Violet Lahde, Kristine Pashin, Ernesto Saenz Peña

The following is Part 5 of a multiple-part series. To read previous installments in this series, please visit the following articles: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

On December 8, 2020, January 19, 2021, March 16, 2021, and May 18, 2021, SPICE posted four articles that highlight reflections from 33 students on the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” Part 5 features eight additional reflections.

The free educational website “What Does It Mean to Be an American?” offers six lessons on immigration, civic engagement, leadership, civil liberties & equity, justice & reconciliation, and U.S.–Japan relations. The lessons encourage critical thinking through class activities and discussions. On March 24, 2021, SPICE’s Rylan Sekiguchi was honored by the Association for Asian Studies for his authorship of the lessons that are featured on the website, which was developed by the Mineta Legacy Project in partnership with SPICE.

Since the website launched in September 2020, SPICE has invited students to review and share their reflections on the lessons. Below are the reflections of eight students. The reflections below do not necessarily reflect those of the SPICE staff.

Giyonna Bowens, Texas
Growing up as a military brat, with my father being a retired sergeant major (SGM) of 30 years, I realized that there is so much to explore in the world, and behind every face, there is a story. It has taught me to be an open-minded individual and to look past racial/socio-economic stereotypes and to truly get to know people for who they are. While being an African American female has inspired me to speak up against racial and social injustice, it has ingrained in me that anyone can do anything they set their minds to, so long as they have a strong work ethic and a positive attitude. What it means to be an American to me is to be educated on other cultures and ethnicities, to fight against gender inequality, and to accept people, no matter their sexuality/gender identity, to progress forward in America.

Austin Akira Fujimori, California
My family loves to travel, so I have been able to experience and observe different types of people and cultures across the world. Because of my Chinese and Japanese heritage, I have frequently visited Japan and China, where it seems that traditional culture has had a very strong effect on people. Based in part on how their citizens dressed and acted, I could easily tell that there was a distinct difference between Chinese and Japanese people. In the U.S., there doesn’t seem to be a dominant culture that influences people. Because America is so diverse, many cultures are brought to the table, allowing people born in the U.S. to live without the influence of one dominant culture. For me, to be American is to be unique, to be born with the freedom to be whoever you want to be.

Eddie Shin Fujimori, California
Being born in a family that comes from China and Japan, I have often considered other countries’ views of Americans. Confidence especially has always stood out as an essential part of what it means to be American. In my experience, this confidence is usually interpreted by people in other countries to be haughty and arrogant. However, I don’t see this “overconfidence” as negative. The trait is directly correlated to Americans strongly believing that working towards what they believe in—as evidenced in the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murder of George Floyd and the anti-Asian hate protests following the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans—can lead to considerable amounts of change. Being American means having the confidence to aspire towards a better society, knowing that we can have an enormous influence on the rules and laws passed.

Nāliʻipōʻaimoku Harman, Hawaii
He Hawaiʻi au. I identify as a Native Hawaiian, but I am of mixed race. The word American has little to no cultural relevance to me. The truth is, I do live in the United States but the American ways don’t match up with my life, how I think and what our traditions and values are. Every day, I wake up and speak Hawaiian, not English, with my family. When I watch the television and see people refusing to wear masks citing individual rights as justification, I feel angry. I am in the habit of wearing a mask in public and even when meeting with family because I know that others’ safety is more important than my personal discomfort. My choices affect others, and my successes are not mine alone.

Lanakila Jones, Hawaii
Being American to me is about having freedom in doing what I love. It’s being able to express myself in the ways I want to. As a Hawaiian, I am truly aware of the history of our nation. Our Queen, Liliʻuokalani, fought her hardest for her people and her beloved nation until the end. As a Hawaiian living in America, I value her integrity and feel the need to pursue it. We need to implement change to stop the ongoing challenges of today. We can’t change the past, we can only build a better present. Being American to me not only means grasping the thought of change, but actually engaging in it to primarily stop ongoing hatred amongst the citizens of our country. To be American means to fulfill equity amongst us to be greater.

Violet Lahde, California
For me being American means assurance; a positive declaration intended to give confidence; a promise. As many of us have learned through our years living in America, we bear many privileges that others don’t, whether inside or outside of our borders. While we may still be fighting for those who can’t, I can still say America has offered me many opportunities, along with a feeling of freedom. This America isn’t and may never be perfect, but holds promise for the future. It allows me to have confidence in anything I want to achieve or change. So regardless of the injustice and prejudice that has become so apparent, I can say I am grateful for the safety and optimism America allows me to have.

Kristine Pashin, California
If I asked you to draw an American, who would you draw? At its core, America is a country nurtured by unique individuals who foster ethnic and cultural diversity. As the daughter of two Bulgarian immigrants, I’ve oscillated between being “too American” and “not American enough.” To avoid confusion, I got used to separating my Bulgarian American identity into two personas. When I wore my nosia (a traditional folk outfit), I considered myself Bulgarian; in Western clothes, I was American. However, I realized that my outfits were a guise—covering up insecurities about my identity. An “American” isn’t someone who can simply be identified by their appearance, as we cannot typify America with one identity. Thus, there is no way to draw an American, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ernesto Saenz Peña, California
To me, “being an American” means being open-minded to new ideas and change. My teachers would always stress the importance of these qualities. Embracing these qualities has allowed me to learn about the diverse cultures in America. I learned Spanish from a young age, and it has allowed me to not only communicate with my parents and family in Mexico, but also has allowed me to see different points of view from others outside of and within America. Seeing other points of view has helped us to bring about changes throughout our history. For example, we abolished slavery, created more rights for farmworkers, and we continue to push against systemic racism. Being American means that we can speak up against what we think is wrong without fear of being punished.

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