Thursday, February 20, 2014

We hold these truths to be self-serving:

...that all men are created about as equal as whatever suits my argument.

It’s tricky to pin point the exact moment I began to stop associating myself with the American culture, but I do believe there was a red double-decker bus involved. You know the one. I was abroad in London with a group of friends, and we were on our way to yet another tourist attraction when a posh English woman, early thirties, said quite loudly into her mobile phone, “I’m terribly sorry I’m having trouble hearing you. There are some noisy Americans on this bus.” She glowered at my friends and I; the way she said the word American, it was steeped with resentment and disdain, as if we were the convoy sent over from the New World to tell King George III what exactly he could tax.

In her defense, a group of fifteen year olds in an enclosed space is a weaponized nuisance in any country. Throw in a slew of dropped consonants and that famed supercilious air of entitled freedom, and you have what we in the modern world like to call a “no win situation.” She was predestined to hate us, the accent just made it easier.

My cultural heritage has been a significant part of my life for as long as I can remember; it’s a common side effect of possessing a distinct, French surname.  On first days of school, after the all-American Jones’ and Smiths had breezed by, my particular fifteen letters of cultural diversity would bring the robotic roll-call to a stuttering halt.

Teacher: Eleanor Tah-Thih-uh, how is that pronounced?
Eleanor: Tee-bow.
Teacher: Oh really? I would have never guessed that.
Eleanor: Obviously.
Teacher: What is that? Where is that from?
Eleanor: It’s Cajun.
Teacher: Oh! Like Mardi Gras!
Eleanor: …Yes. Exactly like Mardi Gras.

Despite having relocated to Texas partway through my adolescence, my family actually is, in a sense, like Mardi Gras; we’re Cajuns – an ethnic group descendant of the French Acadians who were forced out of their Canadian homes during Le Grand Dérangement in the late 1750’s by those infamous parade-rainers themselves, the British.

Before the American colonies told the British monarchy to shove off, there were the Acadians, a group of people who just wanted to eat delicious bread and be Catholic up in Eastern Quebec. However, because the British Crown was going through that gotta-catch-em-all approach to world domination, they seized claim over that particular region of Quebec, and insisted the Acadians swear an oath of fealty to the Iron Throne British Crown. When the Acadians said, “uh, but we’re French?” the Crown proceeded to deport them back to France, from whence they came. Of course about three years after that fiasco, the King of France essentially extradited the faction back to the New World to hang out in the mosquito-ridden Spanish Territory of the Atchafalaya Basin swamps.

And in the face of all this, the once-Acadians, now-Cajuns have exactly one motto, Lassiez les bon temps rouler. (Let the good times roll.) Which is the Cajun way of saying, “No problem cher, if der’s food, it’s a party.”

I’ve always considered myself a Cajun first, and an American second, but the Acadian storyline is not unlike many of the stories of the early American people. At one point or another, the majority of the American settlers suffered under the tyranny of some Class A haters. But to look at our social and cultural landscape now, it sort of reads like a how-to on rebelling from your parents, and then growing up to be exactly like them.  With the insurmountable class divide, social inequalities and a government so divided within itself that it has all but ceased to function, what does it actually mean to be American? More so, is being an American even a good thing anymore?

I left the south at the age of eighteen to seek out more liberal pastures in the Golden State of California. Aside from the geographical differences between the two regions, of which there are billions, the real shock of my relocation was with the culture shift of the area.  The words Northern Californians would prefer to use are “eclectic” and “diverse.” The word I used for the first few years I lived there was “disconnected.” Maybe it was little fish, big pond syndrome, but I felt isolated and utterly lost. There were no crawfish boils or barbeques in community centers there. I couldn’t find a church that felt right. And a substantial number of people I met were under the impression that Mardi Gras was a parade fabricated by alcohol vendors held on Bourbon Street for promiscuous college students. Which, by the way, it is not.

Eventually I did finally begin to settle in to idea of this “culture of cultures.” I shared my traditions, explained how jambalaya is SUPPOSED to taste, and proceeded to build up something new from layers of inherited legacy. My individual culture became a gumbo of a hundred different spices, of various influences and experiences, and with every new insight, I craved more.  No longer feeling the weight of choosing a strictly French or American persona, I was able to become someone entirely unique. Like all of those settlers in their easy-breezy-beautiful covered wagons, I had set out in pursuit of an unprecedented future in the name of Manifest Destiny.  In my attempt to leave Americanism behind, I accidentally became one.

That’s what the American culture is, at its heart. It’s a nation of peoples continuously striving to build a new identity, unafraid of making mistakes, which they did quite often, in the search of something greater. Our culture is ambition and fortitude; we are descendant from explorers and adventurers, and quite a handful of arrogant sons-of-bitches. The same mentality that sent me packing to the golden hills of California was inherited from those Acadian settlers who, after being bullied out of Canada, which was probably the last time THAT ever happened, said “what the hell” and jumped the ship to a place that is the OPPOSITE of Canada. And once they got there, they discovered crawfish and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. 

That passion for something greater than what is known pushed settlers to the West Coast. It led Texans to declare their independence from Mexico. It's the same big risk, big reward American Dream mindset that brings immigrants to our borders, still. For better or worse, that zealous, manic determination is the one common thread that binds our melting pot culture together. Simultaneously, it can make us the best of friends, and the worst of enemies.

Back in 1787, a group of white guys in wigs got together in a stuffy room and spent the entire summer bitching at each other about what laws were necessary for their newly won independence. Odds are good that from the outside, this “convention” looked like a complete disaster. It probably looked that way on the inside, too. But they got it done. Well, they got it started. And the document they drafted still governs today, in theory. With a group of remarkably passionate and driven individuals, they built a national identity for an eclectic and diverse population; a population that would be forever united on a single, self-evident truth: ain’t no one gonna pay that much money for TEA.

Yes, we’re noisy, and headstrong, and we habitually let our emotions get the better of us. Often we think we’re right always because we were right that one time, but we challenge each other. That’s what it means to be an American, and that is a good thing. The woman from the bus will probably always dismiss our American culture as crass, rambunctious and a walking cautionary tale about what happens in a world that drives on the left.

Then again, shortly after she called us noisy, a fellow traveler shouted back, “We’re not Americans, we’re Canadians.

So it could be that now she just hates Canadians, and we’re in the clear.

Better them than us, right, America?