Saturday, November 26, 2011

“I like to be in america”

So, there I was.  Sitting in a Melaque café explaining to one of my readers why I use the term”Indian” by relating the Billie story to her.

No teller of tales, no parlayer of parables could have been more in the zone.  I was in the sweet spot of stories.

And just as I thought I had Babe Ruthed one out of the park with “What should I be called?  I am happy with American.  Oregonian.  Indian ---,” she interrupted with: “Well, there’s the problem, isn’t it?  He’s not an American.  He’s a citizen of the United States of America -- or however they say it in Spanish.”

What flashed through my mind will not appear on these pages.  I suspect I looked as if someone had just ballpeened me in the back of the head.

For some reason, “American” has reduced a number of tourists and expatriates in Mexico to the level of English professors bemoaning the demise of the subjunctive.  But, like most discussions of this nature, this one has a long history.

First, let me confess I value accuracy in word choice.  The distinction between “oral” and “verbal” matters.  They mean two distinct things.  Or they once did.

”America” presents the reverse difficulty.  A word that means several different things depending on its context.  Such ambiguities are the bane of people who like clear cut rules.

But English defeats the urge to build such castles in the clouds.  Any language where a homophone (raise/raze) can be its own antonym is not easily reduced to legalism.

”America” is not a word crafted in the New World.  It is an Old World import.

By the time the Europeans figured out they were utterly lost and that South America, at least, was a continent separate from Asia, a German cartographer labeled the continent “America” in honor of the Latin form of Amerigo Vespucci.  The Florentine explorer credited with starting to realize the land mass was a tope on the road to China.

The term stuck.  Miffing the Spanish who wanted a Columbine name for the New World.  In fact, they were so angry that Spain refused to use the term for two centuries.  The name was not off to a good start -- even though the English loved it.  Partly because it irritated the Spanish.

For most Europeans, the term started as The Americas.  A reference to the new continent.

Ironically, the term took on national tones when Mexico and the other Spanish colonies in America started their wars of independence.  The Spanish born in the New World called themselves “Americans” to distinguish themselves from the hated, privileged elite born in Spain.

By the end of those wars, most of he Spanish-born heads were either missing or shipped back to Spain, and each of the newly independent countries went on to referring to themselves by their new names.  Mexican.  Chilean.  Argentine.

But nothing can be that easy.  A group of liberty-loving colonists rose up against the British lion in 1776, and in 1777 decided to christen their nation “The United States of America.”  All of a sudden the name “America” referred to a specific country and “American” to a specific group of citizens.  And, generally, the world started using the terms that way.

We now have terms with national and continental implications.  But any ambiguities are easily resolved by context.  Sometimes America still means the full continent.  Such as, corn, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes were developed in America.  That obviously means on the continent -- and not in Detroit.

On the other hand, references to American foreign policy can only mean the policy of The United States.  There is no other political entity with that name.

And that is why I usually refer to myself as an American.  There is no reasonable alternative.  The tongue-twisting estadounidense is understood.  But, around here, so is americano.   

Norteamericano is what my Mexican neighbors call me.  Well, they usually make the mistake of first calling me Canadian.  That is the default in these here parts for elderly white folks.

I might even change what I call myself.  As soon as I hear people stop saying “you Americans” and start saying “we Americans.”  Then I will start practicing my tongue twisters.

And if someone born in Mexico City wants to call herself an American, I will say: "You certainly are."

In the end, of course, all of this is rather silly.  Jonna hit the nail on the head in yesterday’s comments:  “As to the British distinction between Indians.  I have 2 friends who are a couple, one is an American Indian (how's that for non PC? but it is what he calls himself) and the other is a Hindu.  They refer to themselves as the 'dot and feather' couple.”

Billie, my American Indian co-worker, would have chuckled and approved.  As he got into his Honda with the “Buy American” placard in the back window.


Trevinofrancisco said...

Call me anything you like, just don't call me late for dinner!  I wonder who came up with that one, I like it.  Another interesting post.  Thanks

Kim G said...

As a mild form of protest over all these special regional/racial names, a few years ago I started ticking "other" in racial categories and penning in "European-American."  After all, why should white people lack a hyphen if they want one?

Further, in the future much of this racial categorization is going to become impossible. An old friend is Chinese-Filipino, with a mother from Manila and a father from Hong Kong. He grew up in Oklahoma speaking English as neither parent spoke the other's native tongue.  He told me used to check the "Chinese" box on these forms that ask for race, but then had decided later in life that "Asian Pacific Islander" sounded more interesting and had started to check that box instead.

And your reference to the "Indian School" was immediately understandable, where any of the suggestions in the comments would have left one wondering what you were getting at.

We all need to be a little less sensitive and seize the opportunity to define ourselves, and not let other peoples' labels get us too upset.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we refuse to be boxed into other peoples' categories.

NWexican said...

It is really difficult to NOT offend someone who is choosing to be offended. As a preacher friend of mine once said, "Choose to not be offended" Call me whatever you wish and I will choose to not be offended. I am part Jew, American Indian(Modoc I guess as nobody knows for sure) but I can go by just "Indian," American, German, and most likely a few others. So have at it I am a huge target and open for business. Mostly I guess we are just peeps like my daughter says.

ANM said...

There is only once race.  The human race.  And what we call ourselves or one another may have many uses.  In most cases, I can tell from the context whether the intent behind what I am called, or call myself, has a good or other purpose.  In some cases, I may be right to be offended.  But it is often difficult to clearly locate the intention in some social circumstances without further interaction.  In those cases, I have adopted the method of positing indeterminacy to what a person may mean until later I can clarify their use of a term over a broader number of cases of use.  Failing that, I usually let it go.

But I have to admit to an instance, quite recently, that rankled me, and brought out prickly side of myself that I try not to let go public.  I was in a new restaurant and the person waiting on me, whom I had never met and who was 20-something, kept referring to me as "sweetie" and "hon," in a way that seemed to me at any rate to indicate a condescending attitude toward me because of my age.  The terminology made me  feel  as if I was being considered a drooling senile fool.  And I growled about the usage, indicating I did not appreciate the  use of language, that I found it presumptuous and insulting.  I have encountered these terms from younger  persons in a number of other social  circumstances, and I am fairly certain that my age is the factor that has moved me socially to that class of persons no longer capable of comprehending spoken English because of RBT (rapid brain deterioration).

I may be trotting into that good night, but I will continue to rage against the dying of the polite, in a way, I hope, that does not give reason for further  insult.

I have no idea what any of this rambling means.  ANM

Steve Cotton said...

I think I have had enough appellation poverty for a bit.

Steve Cotton said...

It appears we were cut from a similar cloth. 

When I was in the Air Force in the early 70s, the government realized it had made a "mistake" in the 60s by destroying all race and religion information about employees.  The 70s were the era of affirmative action -- and data was required to measure success. 

Like all other employees, I was required to fill out a form that requested what I "considered" myself to be in race in religion.  By race, I thought of myself as an American.  But the closest category was American Aleut.  I marked that.  I then wrote in Reformed Druid as my religion. 

I suspect I wiped out an entire affirmative action category when I was discharged.

Steve Cotton said...

What the rambling means is that we share the nagging notion that we are standing on life's lawn waving a cane over our head and muttering about socialism.

What I really want to know, though is: Was Locke an Aristotelian?

Steve Cotton said...

I just wish I was better at choosing the not offended path.  But then I would never have written the post.

ANM said...

Don't say things like that if you don't mean them, I say, shaking my oak cane in the air, threateningly.  ANM

Jonna said...

Somewhere in the discourse about what to call those of us from the 50 states north of Mexico, many seem to have forgotten that usability is also important.  It doesn't matter what you decide is the right term, if it is difficult to pronounce or has more than 3 syllables it won't be used.  Usaians comes under both of those sections but there may also be another section for 'sounds stupid' and it would come under that one too.   

It's about communication, if everyone understands what you mean and most people don't add on a lot of additional nuances that you didn't mean - it's a good word.  If the day comes that using American for people from the USA adds a different meaning to what I intended for the majority of the people listening, I guess I'll have to change.  Hopefully, if I'm around then I will not be speaking much English anyway and Spanish has a perfectly good word for us. Although it is more difficult for English speakers to pronounce, estadounidense eventually rolls off your tongue pretty easily.  I always want to suggest "Murcans" to those who object on PC grounds, it sounds perfect when said in an Alabama accent. 

Eric Chaffee said...

Personally, I'll go with yanqui, which in some circles pertains only to New Englanders; but perhaps here in Mexico distinguishes me from the Canadians. 

By definition (Robert Frost's) a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast. I'll do that any day of the week.


Steve Cotton said...

I always thought "Yanqui" was Mr. Gohome's name.

Steve Cotton said...

Of course, there is my approach when asked where I am from, I say: "aquí."

Mcotton said...

In answer to ANM, I was, in Costco a few days ago, the cashier said "there you go dear".  I told her I was not her dear and don't call me that.  She answered me that her mother called everyone dear and no one else had complained.  I explained others did not like it either, they just kept quiet.

Steve Cotton said...

I feel that way about doctor offices that use first names -- especially for older women.  I know the purpose is to create the illusion of relationship, but it is just an illusion. 

The last time that happened to me, I used one of my favorite Tim Roth lines from Rob Roy: "I gave you no leave to call me familiar."  The nurse just stared at me.  Communication failure.

Diane Siriani said...

Awesome Story :)


Gaby from pdx said...

Steve - so sorry to jump in here in a spot irrelevant to my request - but honestly, you've got SO MANY great posts that I can't figure out where/when you posted what.  My bad.  So - I'm curious re: where you'd recommend staying while in Melaque for a month or more over Dec-Jan/Feb.  I'd love to meet w/you - and I'm from PDX.  So let me know what I can bring w/me?  Gaby from pdx

Steve Cotton said...

I really do not know much about the lodging situation down here. But let me know when you are in town. My track record for the past three years is not good for visitors in the winter. I tend to leave town when the weather is at its best. Bad planning on my part.