SOSUA, Dominican Republic- “Where are you from?” a French Canadian expat in Sosua asked me when I first arrived in town.
“America,” I answered.
“Oh, you mean that really big continent to the north?”
“That’s the one.”
“So you are an American,” he continued, “that means that you are from the 32 countries of the Americas? No, you are not an American, we are all Americans.”
This old, worn debate — again.
It often happens that a person from country in the Americas, though outside of the USA, takes issue with the demonym of my country: they say that I am not an American because every person from the 32 countries of the Americas are “Americans.”
Any traveler from the USA in Central or South America, the Caribbean or Canada will be invited into this discussion at some point. Only 1 in a 100 people in the entire region seem to care what I call myself, and 99% call me an “Americano” and say that I am from “America.” But 1% will offer a challenge similar to what the Canadian was offering me.
“If I should not call myself an American,” I retorted towards the Canadian’s advance, “then why do the people here call me Americano? What other name should I go by?”
There is no other name, and no way to answer these questions that I have heard yet. I have only ever gotten one response, and that was from a Chilean who said that, to be politically correct, I should call myself an Estados Unidoense or something like that. I tried it, and nobody knew what I was talking about.
I call myself an “American” as a conventional of speech. It is the word that people understand to mean a person from the USA, any other response is often not understood. In almost every language the demonym of a person from the USA usually takes a word similar to “America” as its root.
In German I am called an Amerikaner.
In French, an Américain.
In Chinese I am called a Meiguoren — which literally means “beautiful country person,” but is more of a phonetically dictated title: “Mei” as in A-Mei-Rican.
In Japanese I am called an Amerikan.
In Russia, an американский.
In Hungarian, an Amerikai.
In Swahili, a mwamerikani.
And in Spanish I am called an Americano.
I am a mere user of words and phrases rather than their architect, and it strikes me as funny why so many people in the Western hemisphere take offense that people from the USA refering to themselves with the word that their own language decrees that they should be known as. The United States of America has the word “America” in it, so we came to be known as Americans, or its equivilent, all over the world. But the Canadian was not going to take this answer with open hands.
“Your country is called the United States of the AMERICAS,” my Canadian foe continued, “therefore it is called the United States, not America.”
“Well the official name of Mexico is Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos” I replied, “does that mean that Mexico should also be called the United States?”
My new Canadian friend was so into his argument that he did not seem to hear me, and I know that a chronic symptom of many expats is that they often cannot hear over the sound of their own voice.
But I continued anyway. “No, you don’t say that a Mexican is from the United States, even though the official name of their country is the United States of Mexico. You call them a Mexican. The same is for a person from the United States of America. They are called Americans.”
It is a name, a title, and such things usually only come at the end of a long and twisted history. The names of things should mean nothing more than the purpose they are currently used for, to untwist the wound ropes of word origins — and to take offense at their deeper implications — is to scream a mute point:
Language is a collection of sounds which convention gives meaning. You call something by a name just because it is its name. The convention here is that a person from the USA is called an American — whether the logic of this title is literally correct or not.
The origins behind the naming of the continents of the western hemisphere as the Americas is likewise a twisted topic. Nobody really knows for certain where the title “America” came from. It was first documented on a map in 1507, and acutally indicated the present day country of Brazil.
Wherever these early explorers and cartographers dug out the name America is still speculated. Prevailing knowledge suggests that the name came from the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, but upon further inspection many have declared that he actually changed his name to match the object of his explorations, rather than his discoveries taking his name. It has also been suggested that a Welsh explorer who landed on the Labrador coast named Richard Amerike gave the region its title. A current thesis is that the word America was actually taken from an Indian tribe in Nicaragua known as the Amerrique. This tribe happened to be living in an area fabled for gold, and the name America soon became synonomous with this precious metal. Other suggestions say that America was derived from a Mayan word meaning wind, and other scholars reaffirm that it was, in fact, cartographers who named the continent after Amerigo Vespucci, for lack of a better title for their map.
It is anyone’s guess how the term “America” became indicitive of one particular country — the USA — within the region of the same name. But the issue of correct application, logical usage, or the origin of the term American being applied to a person from the USA is not what sparks me into debate when I am told that this title is politically incorrect: it is the underlying intentions behind the discussion. People who bring up this argument seem to be trying to knock me down a peg, to push me off the high horse they think I am riding on, to make me apologize for something, to speak badly about the country I was born in.
So I am told that by proclaiming myself as an American means that I am expelling them from my conceptualization of the Americas, saying that they are insignificant, kicking them right off the map. Some people in the Americas take this as an insult:
“But we are from America too!”
I have been corraled into this discussion by far too many people in far too many parts of the Americas to not be intrigued by it. I do not understand why someone who is secure in their own nationality, proud of their upbringing, and who really believes that their country deserves respect would try to remove something as insignificant as a title from me and apply it to themselves.
I do not understand why someone would want to pick this fight — of all the things in the world there are to fight about.
This discussion is like watching a bunch of greyhounds stupidly racing stupid around a track chasing after a plastic lure thinking they can eat it, or in Bukowski’s famous words, “. . . trying to screw a cat in the ass.” It goes nowhere. Words are only spoken but none are heard.
I would rather just be insulted, simply, and to scrap the dinner and the dance. I have foolishly taken this discussion seriously — nobody really cares what I call myself. I am being fooled, my logical reactions are for nothing, I am riding a jest.
The debate over whether or not I am justified in applying the title “American” to myself is irrelevant, as this is not a discussion of logic or fact, but, rather, it is a kick thrown from under the table, the smile on the face of a man who really just wants to say, “F’ck you, Americano.”
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