Being American: What does it mean to you?

I came to this country in 2001, hoping to someday call myself an American. A decade later, I am finally eligible to apply for citizenship. I commemorated this event by going for a walk—from my home in New York City, through the Carolinas and Alabama, across the Mississippi and the Southwest. I made it all the way to California, hitchhiking when it got too hot, and then I took a Greyhound bus home.

The day of my naturalization I will become a fellow citizen of over 285 million people who call themselves American. Most have been able to use that label their whole lives, but I have not, so I am trying to better understand what it really means to them.

I met hundreds of people along the way. In Alabama, I got a job doing manual labor for a metal roofing company. I spent five months there. Working construction in the heart of the South was not something I had planned, but it taught me much about this often misunderstood part of the country. My goal, after all, was to learn what being American means to people of different regions. I wanted to find out what binds us together as a nation.

What does a 10th-generation New Englander have in common with a first-generation Hispanic in California? What does a descendant of antebellum slave owners share with the granddaughter of Vietnamese refugees? How is the life of a Native American today similar to that of someone whose ancestors were kidnapped in Africa and brought here as slaves? I spent thirteen months pondering these questions.

chronicled my journey by writing regular dispatches for Arizona State University's Center for Social Cohesion. Please visit the archives to learn more about my travels and what they taught me.


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