America is completely incomprehensible, and even by “Americans.” I’m not talking about politics or GMOs or terrorist attacks. I’m talking about America!
What spurred me to write this blog post was a traveler in Bangkok who got upset when I called myself an American. Not because I was from the USA, but because it was politically incorrect to say American when referring only to the US, when America included other countries. Huh?
Even though that was eight months into my travels, it seems it was the catalyst, for the confusion has come up several times since then, including in the US!
So here’s the rub. America, by definition, could refer to the United States, North America, South America or both continents collectively. (Don’t be naive enough to think Central America is it’s own continent. Now that’s confusing. The USA can also be called by the same name as the whole continent, to the exclusion of Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. I get that Australia has the same name as the continent, but it’s the sole country on the continent, and the region is called Oceania. I think that the beef that the guy in Thailand had was that I was dissing Canada somehow by calling myself an America. I don’t even think he was from Canada. But what else am I supposed to call myself? The USA doesn’t have any other name for it’s citizens.
Now, there are a handful of countries who look down upon the USA, and don’t particularly like their citizens. Some travelers who are from the USA have gotten around this by saying they are from Canada. Too bad that’s also part of America (one of the definitions), which still makes them American.
When you get down to the heart of the matter, the true Americans were the native Americans. Of course, they were really Russian, traveling over the Bering Straight something like 13,000 years ago. They were obviously the first to “discover” America, but then you get Americans believing that Christopher Columbus discovered America.
The USA or the continent? What’s America! Sheesh.
Okay, so now we’re talking about the continent. But Columbus needs to get in line. Leif Erikson beat him to the western hemisphere by nearly 500 years. True, he only made it to Newfoundland in Canada. Luckily that’s still America! And before him, the Chinese claimed that they had sailed to the Americas too.
Columbus might have laid claim to America in 1492 had he actually thought he was in America. But he returned to Spain claiming he had made it to the Indies, calling them the West Indies, which were actually the Bahamas in the Caribbean. A few years later, Amerigo Vespucci sailed along the coast of South America. I guess since he actually made it to the continent (large land mass) itself, his name got picked. But even that fact seems to be in doubt. Damn, why does this have to be so confusing?
Hey, here’s something else. America being in the West is completely arbitrary. Before Columbus, orientation was done by facing the ORIENT, as in facing East. Even earlier maps had our current south at the top of the map. Talk about the Nile flowing North to South! So why all this delineation about directions and “over there” and separation? It’s still the same planet.
There’s one other point I feel I need to include here. I’m constantly being asked what America thinks about something. Whether the landmass or the country, neither one has ever had a thought. Only a living entity can do that. OK, so Americans then. Assuming you’re talking about the country, I could honestly say that there’s not a single thing that all 320 million residents of the USA agree upon. But I digress.
Finally, we get to what it means to call yourself an American. Recently I met a man at the airport who had traced his family lineage in the USA back to the late 1600’s! Since we’ve decided here to accept that America refers to the USA too, we’ll forget about the Native Americans for the moment. Now we just have to delineate current residence with heritage. How many Americans would consider themselves from another culture, even though they were born in America? Personally, my dad was born in South Africa, and while my mom was born in California, her parents were born in Holland (really, the region in The Netherlands) and Switzerland. Does that allow me to call myself Dutch or South African?
Truth of the matter is, I just want to consider myself from Earth. Earthling sounds a little too sci-fi, but there’s another great word. Cosmopolitan. Citizen of Earth. And member of the Human Race.
Just imagine if everyone on the planet thought the same way.
Cover image source: Wikipedia
Map image source: Google Earth
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