Stanescu-Bellu: What it Means to be an American

Have the values and ideas that people associate with America eroded over time?

by Sofia Stanescu-Bellu | 2/2/17 12:20am

For the first time in my life, I’ve started to question what it means to be an American. Given the events of the past year or so, I’m probably not the only one. As an immigrant, my life in the United States hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. There have been times when a heavy looming cloud of dysphoria shrouded me in darkness. It can be hard to feel at home when your place of birth, most of your family and large parts of your identity are 5,000 miles away.

Yet, while Romania will always be my home, America has become a surrogate for the home I left behind and holds a special place in my heart. The life I lead, the experiences and opportunities I’ve had and the people I have met have only been possible because of the U.S. and the millions of Americans who call this country home. It’s because of people like my preschool teacher who taught me English when I was a scared 4-year-old in an unfamiliar country and the manager of the construction firm who gave my dad his first job here — allowing him to provide for me, my mom and later my brother — that I am here today, at Dartmouth, writing this column.

Some might chalk up my immigrant experience to luck, privilege or both. Maybe they’re right, but there is a reason that hundreds of thousands of immigrants have come to this country in search of a better future. It’s the American Dream, the freedom, the democracy, the kindness of strangers, the old-fashioned gallantry, the fierce pride and devotion to your country. It’s an experience, life and identity that was coveted around the world. Has the recent election changed all this? Have our divisions destroyed the unity of a nation?

The American label doesn’t carry the weight it once did. The anger, distrust and fear that have been running rampant among the public certainly haven’t helped the appeal of the “I’m American!” sticker. A record high 77 percent of Americans believe that the country is divided. One nation united no more it seems, with partisanship seeming to tear open seams that have withstood nearly 240 years of war and peace.

People might be tempted to point a finger at a segment of the population and accuse them for tarnishing America, muddying its core beliefs and distorting them into something perverse. It has been said that America lost the glory that brings millions of immigrants to her shores and causes countries around the world to epitomize her as the definition of success and a happy life. After much reflection, I disagree.

Our values, who we are as Americans, encompass much more than who is in power and what a few voices fervently proclaim. Our kindness, resilience and love for this country shouldn’t diminish because of one election — in its 240 years of existence, America has withstood worse and persevered. This time should be no different. If there’s anything the recent protests have shown, it’s that even when forces try to tear America apart, America will not be divided. America will grit its teeth and stand up for what is good, right and true and come out swinging.

Historically, national and global perception of the U.S. undergoes a cyclical shift. In some eras, such as after World War II, America was in a euphoric state in which it embraced its identity. In eras of war or distress, such as after Vietnam, the demonym “American” adopted a sour taste in many mouths and disillusionment arose, similar to what we are experiencing today. The 2016 election is another unfortunate trough in the wave of history.

I am not saying we should forget everything that has been said and done within the past year and what undoubtedly will transpire within the next four to eight. I am saying instead that America, no matter how dark parts of its history are and how bleak the present may seem, shouldn’t abandon the values that have made it a beacon of hope. As former First Lady Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”

Embrace our freedoms, because other countries have less than we do. Embrace our right to protest, because other countries live in silence. Embrace our democracy, because other countries are ruled with an iron fist. Embrace the American kindness, because there is no other country on Earth that could have taken and been as welcoming to so many as the United States has been. Unite under these values and let them drive America into the light instead of the darkness. Unite as a nation, as a people, as human beings.

Battered and bruised, values intact, we, the Americans, will endure. So to whoever thinks America will crumble and fall, think again.