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We Are All Americans

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 [...]

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.

First map of America

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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Politics — Geopolitics

Sources

Filed under: Caribbean, Culture and Society, Dominican Republic, Intercultural Conflict, Politics

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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13 comments… add one

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  • Bob L February 20, 2010, 10:47 pm

    Refer to Canada as the Northern Territories of the USA…..

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  • McGuire February 21, 2010, 1:12 am

    Right on! I just spent over three years in Peru, and then spent a few months in Ecuador and Colombia; I have heard this argument a few times myself, but always by the “elite, liberal” extrañjeros. These are usually individuals who in actuality harbor racist, nostalgic views of the “Americas” , …
    The reality is that the Americas encompass North, Central, and South America,…so anyone from any country in this region is an “American”, and can rightly claim that as their identity – including people from the U.S!. … The person who argues against this suffers from a perverse post-colonial guilt which they try to exorcise by bothering anyone willing to entertain them with their language game…

    I also really take issue with U.S. travelers that pretend they are Canadians or Australians, or Englishmen while abroad. I think there is a similar perverted nostalgia in pretending you are someone you are not, so as to fool a foreign national, and actually patronize them by claiming a (false) identity which the faker thinks qualifies them (incorrectly) as some kind of non-racist spectre. This same person will surely be seen taking photos of indigenous street children and later will be in their hostel eating brownies and posting the fotos accompanied by racist headings on social networking sites. Maybe you can post on these phenomena sometime!?
    Nice analysis,

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 22, 2010, 8:02 pm

      Mike,

      You’ve spoken wise words. It is true that this argument is usually brought up by “elite liberals” who somehow seem to view themselves as being somehow separated from their society or culture.

      It is also absolutely unnecessary for USA travelers to try to hide their identity. It is my impression that the people of the world are often far more interested in meeting and talking to an American about the USA than in showing anger towards them in any way. Even in Iraq and Syria I walked down the street and told anyone who inquired that I was from the USA. Often, they would then smile and want to talk more with a natural sense of curiosity. In over 10 years the only places where I have ever been overtly shown any hostility for being from the USA was Western Europe or from a random over educated rich kid in Latin America.

      The world does not hate Americans, and there is absolutely no reason to disguise your nationality anywhere, regardless of what the “progressive” sects of our country try to convince us is true.

      Thanks for the excellent comment,

      Wade

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  • Andy K. February 21, 2010, 2:36 am

    If I am speaking English and am asked “Where are you from?” I came up with an easy and generally safe reply.

    “Minnesota”

    I figure if I am speaking in English they already know what my passport is going to say, and since the point of the question it to get to know me and from whence I come “America” is a pretty vague answer even if you only mean the USA by it. In many ways I culturally connected to a lot of Canadians than I am from people living in Florida who share the same passport.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 22, 2010, 8:19 pm

      Hello Leslie, Andy K, and Russ,

      Your method of giving a more space specific answer to the question of “where are you from?” is really good when speaking to someone with a knowledge of US geography, but, in my experience, most people in the world have absolutely no idea what anything in the USA is besides NYC, LA, Chicago, and Miami let alone trying to say that you are from “Maine” haha. It is hilarious watching Chaya tell people what state she is from (especially since monosyllabic words are not often used as place names), people look at her like she is nuts.

      “Where is that near?” they ask.

      “Canada.”

      “Where is that?”

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  • Brian P February 21, 2010, 10:13 am

    Dang those people are annoying. Good write up on a topic most every United Statesian traveler will get into at some point or another. Assinine. I’m sure that 2 years ago that this guy would have also wanted to talk about Bush and 9/11 fakery. Nothing one can do about those people other than walk the other way.

    A reverse situation is when someone takes offense at being called British and corrects you to say English. I don’t want to go there either.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 22, 2010, 8:07 pm

      Hello Brian,

      Good point, it seems to be a power play — a cheap way of one upping someone — to correct their usage of terms: especially terms that are of conventional usage. Some people just like to try to call other people out, to make them listen, and, in a passive aggressive sense, make them do what they tell them to. It is all a power play.

      You solution is right: just walk away.

      Though the Canadian in this story really became a friend, he just wanted to bust my balls to see what I was made of first haha.

      Walk Slow,

      Wade

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  • Leslie Reyes February 21, 2010, 11:51 am

    I agree with Andy K. Whenever I am asked “where are you from?” I always say California…I assume the person asking knows where that is.

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  • Russ February 22, 2010, 1:11 pm

    To the question of where I am from I say “I live in California in the United States” and depending on who is asking I sometimes add that I am not really a native Californian, but rather from Connecticut. (Sometimes people react strangely if they think I’m from California. That’s an entirely separate topic though…) When asked my nationality, I definitely go with “American” since as you say, it’s really the only correct and useful answer.

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  • Steve-O February 22, 2010, 10:46 pm

    Japanese usually refer to people by their country and add the suffix “jin” so it would be Amerika-jin

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 23, 2010, 9:26 am

      Hello Steve-O,

      Yes, you are correct, I let an auto translator usurp me on that one. Hopefully I will be called Amerika-jin again soon. (Trying to get my wife to get a teaching job there hehe).

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      • Steve-O March 2, 2010, 11:31 pm

        If you get a teaching job here, go with the JET program first, the pay is better.

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 3, 2010, 8:00 am

          I will tell my wife, she is the professional worker in the family haha.

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