What does it mean to be an American now?


Despite having lived on the mainland U.S. for the past 5 years, it continues to prove as a culture shock for me every once in a while. Having grown up in Hawaii in a multiracial family shaped my worldview and identity tremendously, and I had always felt more connected to my identity in Hawaii than my identity as an American. When Obama was elected in '08 and '12, things changed. I felt the most proud and the most American I've ever felt in my whole life. I finally felt like I was part of something bigger than myself, and bigger than Hawaii; I felt like we were all finally connected. However, the reality of these past few days have made me feel more alienated and more un-American than I have ever imagined possible.

Things are different at home. I cherished working, learning, and celebrating together with other people who looked different from me, and loved participating in and learning from all the cultures and races that come together to make Hawaii a true cultural melting pot. I grew up going to Oktoberfests with my Oma, celebrated Chinese New Year with li si and gao with my grandpa, went to Japanese Bon dances with friends in the summers, learned to make Portuguese bean soup from my stepdad, and I couldn't begin to tell you how many Hawaiian plate lunches I've eaten thus far in my life. Coexisting just seemed like a given.

As children, we learned about American history, but we also learned just as much about Hawaiian history, which is full of incredible female leaders who were intelligent, kind, and used their positions of power to improve the lives of women, and their people at large: Kaʻahumanu, Princess Kaʻiulani, Queen Liliʻuokalani. This list only scratches the surface. With these role models, (my single mother who supported me to no end, and my boisterous Oma included,) it never occurred to me that women could really be as marginalized as they were historically, and continue to be in the present day in America.

 Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii

Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii

Tuesday brought about the stark realization that despite the way I experienced the world for most of my life—where women could be powerful, and people were inclusive, and tolerant, and generally kind deep down toward people of all walks of life—this is certainly not the reality in America. Not historically, and clearly not today. Maybe it's naïve, and maybe it's a huge downer, but I really hoped for a lot better for the world. I thought I knew what it meant to be compassionate, but my eyes have been opened up to see just a small fraction of the fear and injustice that many people have faced all their lives for generations in this country. And even that small sliver of fear has sent me into a panic this week. It's embarrassing that it took me this long.

This is a huge blow. I don't really know what can be done or how it can be improved, but I've seen a world where people can be compassionate together and (sorry this is corny as hell,) be one unified 'ohana. I'm just hoping that that reality can extend outside of one small island chain. Now's the time to dig deep and embolden yourself with your female role models, figure out what's important to you in your future, and use your station to understand—really, truly understand— and improve the lives of your peers who might not be so lucky in this new era of America.


by Tori Borengasser // @toriborengasser

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