What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : immigration

Engagements

Being American Means Never Having to Fret Over Your Legal Documents

Paperwork Was a Matter of Life and Death When I Was a Refugee. Now, It’s Just an Annoyance.

By Sanja Jagesic
December 26, 2014

Last year, when my driver’s license was set to expire, I went online to apply for a renewal but was thwarted by error messages. Exasperated at the time I had to spend entering my information and getting nowhere, I called the help hotline only to be informed, after a 20-minute holding time, that because I had gotten eyeglasses since my last license was issued, I was ineligible for online renewal and would have to go to my nearest Department of …

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Encounters

The United States of Ribs

I Didn’t Just Want to Live in America, I Wanted to Eat It

barbecue, 4th of July, Simon Majumdar

By Simon Majumdar
December 12, 2014

It was all about the food. To be honest, it always has been, and probably always will be.

It was all about the food when I was growing up in a small mining town in the north of England, distracting myself from my grimy surroundings with the smells of Bengali food that wafted from the large kitchen in our family home. And, it was all about the food 40 years later as the death of my beloved mother and the pressures …

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Artifacts

America’s First Rock Star

Plymouth Rock Has Been the Subject of History Lessons, Songs, and Speeches for 400 Years. Why Do We Love It?

A piece of Plymouth Rock.

By Matthew Dennis
November 25, 2014

“Plymouth Rock is a glacial erratic at rest in exotic terrane.” So begins John McPhee’s classic 1990 New Yorker article, the best short piece ever written about the great American relic, pointing out how geological forces carried this rock far from its original home—Africa. It is an iconic mass of granite geologically formed by fire, but it certainly also qualifies as a sedimentary and metamorphic chunk of American political culture. Plymouth Rock has long been a symbol of America’s beginnings, …

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Identities

Caught Between Gefilte Fish and Campbell’s Soup

I Loved My Jewish Mother’s Cooking, But I Also Longed for PB&Js and Mallomars

gefilte fish, food, Jewish food, Passover

By Hasia Diner
November 7, 2014

When I first gravitated toward writing about food and immigration to the United States as an ostensibly serious academic, colleagues asked me—and, frankly, I asked myself—the obvious question. Why food? Food perhaps lacked the gravitas and significance of subjects like political, labor or immigration history.

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Journeys

From a London Alley to the White House

Louisa Catherine Adams, the Only First Lady Born Outside the U.S., Had to Prove Herself to Her Husband’s Family, Congress—and the Country

Louisa Catherine Adams, First Lady

By Louisa Thomas
October 31, 2014

It was hard for Louisa Catherine Adams, the only first lady born outside the United States, to say where she came from. She began her life in a narrow alley in London, in 1775, but she was taught not to think of herself as British. Her mother, Catherine, was English; her father, Joshua Johnson, was a merchant from Maryland and an American patriot.

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Ideas

The ‘Hot, Foul, Sultry Air’ of Ellis Island

What It Was Like at the Main Gateway to the U.S. in the Early 20th Century

October 17, 2014

Immigrants arrive in the U.S. today at thousands of entry points, by plane, boat, car, and foot. But for decades at the turn of the 20th century, the harbor at Ellis Island was the main gateway to America. The recently erected Statue of Liberty welcomed these huddled masses, and the hive of activity that was New York City buzzed just beyond.

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Journeys

When Immigration Isn’t a One-Way Street

My Great-Grandfather Came to California from China to Work on the Railroads, and Our Family Has Gone Back and Forth Ever Since

Steven Wong, Wongs

By Steven Wong
October 14, 2014

When my great-grandfather made his way from China to the United States in the 1920s, I doubt he ever imagined his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would make their way back. California was a land of opportunity, where he spent the rest of his life.

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Ideas

Is Tony Soprano Quintessentially American?

Christopher Columbus Is No Longer the Iconic Italian-American. And That Might Be a Good Thing.

Christopher Columbus, parade, Columbus Day Parade, Italian-American

By Nancy Foner
October 10, 2014

It used to be that Christopher Columbus was the major iconic representative of the Italian-American community in popular culture, but he has since given way to the likes of Tony Soprano and all the Hollywood-inspired gangsters that came before him.

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Journeys

The Path to Mars Goes From Lebanon to Pasadena

Growing Up in the Middle East, I Loved John Wayne and Gazing at the Stars. I Came to America Believing Nothing Was Impossible.

Charles Elachi and colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

By Charles Elachi
September 22, 2014

“Only the United States could do this.” Those words were uttered by the head of a foreign space agency who was one of my VIP guests at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, on August 5, 2012, the night the long-awaited Mars Curiosity rover landed successfully on the Red Planet. I’ll never forget hearing him say those words…

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Encounters

At an Irish-American Funeral Home, I Found My Chinese Roots

Just Blocks Away From the Blarney Stone Pub, Buddhist Nuns Helped My Family Lay My Grandmother to Rest in San Francisco

At an Irish-American Funeral Home I Found My Chinese Roots

By Jia-Rui Cook
September 22, 2014

In a room filled with wreaths bearing Chinese characters on broad ribbons, two Buddhist nuns in embroidered yellow robes started chanting and striking bells. One by one, members of my family, each with a black band tied around an arm, approached my grandmother’s casket. Each of us held a smoldering joss stick between prayer hands and bowed three times in respect.

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