They're gr-r-reat! (Being an American)
Do you remember how old you were when you grasped that the United States was powerful? I was little, still living in the Dominican Republic (the DR). A new classmate at my elementary school was a “Dominican York” kid—the son of Dominicans living in New York. Another classmate whispered in my ear. “See how big he is? Americans are stronger and smarter than us, Dominicans, because we grow up eating plantains and they grow up eating cornflakes.”
(Of course, in a hunger-stricken, food-obsessed country the explanation for the US success had to be dietary.)
Back then in the DR, cornflakes were cost-prohibitive except for rich families; and plantains, rice and beans were the base of our diets. Everybody “knew” that plantains contained a substance that made you dumb—yet people claiming that about plantains would not stop eating them. Yet you just had to glimpse at the side of a Frosted Flakes box to see the extensive list of vitamins it contained—subtypes of B vitamins I didn’t even know existed back then. And if the list of nutrients didn’t convince you, you just had to watch the ads with the Tiger. If you wanted your sports team to win, you had to eat Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.
(That must also explain why people from the US always won the Olympics while the DR rarely ever won anything!—they had Frosted Flakes for breakfast!)
So, I tease my American-born-husband all the time about it. “Of course you are taller and stronger than me (he’s over six-foot tall and I’m 5’4 in a good day). But that is because you grew up eating cornflakes.”
I’ve been an official American now for almost a decade, and living in the US for two—yet old habits are hard to break. I’m far from feeling as purely American as my husband David is. And is not about my DNA, my tan skin or my accent. It’s about an intangible sense of privilege and pride that was unknown to me until I heard the words, “The Pursuit of Happiness.”
Even as a little girl, I knew what the word “American” meant. It meant, “Be careful. This guy may look harmless; with his red-burnt skin, his goofy shorts, and his tendency to overpay. But if you lay a finger on him, he’ll go to his consulate, summon the US Army, and you’ll pay with your blood.” In summary: Don’t mess with this one, someone has his back.
What a wonderful and enviable thing to imagine that was! The Dominican government had NOBODY’s back. Are you kidding me? I grew up scared of policemen, because everybody knew they were the first suspects when a crime had occurred.
And now here I was, trying to put behind decades of belonging to the oppressed group, I had to prove I deserved my membership to this exclusive club of “The Winners of History.”
I have to clarify that my husband David is not an average American. He has traveled extensively and acquired cosmopolitan tastes. (Proof of that? He married me!) Still, he is the best exponent of the qualities that attracted me of the ideal of America. I call it “The Cornflakes Personality.” Some other experts call it, “The syndrome of growing up hearing that your country put people on the moon” or “The syndrome of We have more missiles than all of you.”
1- The Cornflakes Personality is pure Self-Confidence:
Have you ever had to return something to the store? Let’s say, you bought a toaster and it didn’t work? I hate it. My insides twist in anxiety, even if I have the receipt and saved the box. “What if they don’t believe me? What if they say, ‘It was working fine. You broke it and now are trying to make us refund you. Shame on you! Can you prove you didn’t do something to mess it up? Dropped it in the full sink? Messed with the circuit breakers in your house?”
My husband David? He goes back to the store with no receipt and no box and—without hesitation—calmly demands his money back. He might even walk out of there with a gift card in apology for the inconvenience. The other day he walked into Publix, helped himself a bag of tomatoes and told the cashier, “The last tomatoes I bought here were overripe, so I’m taking these in exchange without paying.” (He did that with no receipt, no proof, and without bringing back the spoiled tomatoes and nobody questioned him.)
I couldn’t do that in a million years. Just like dogs can smell fear, they’d assume I’m lying even if I’m not, just by my shaking. But David radiates a self-assurance that hypnotizes people. I have the theory that’s how he helped traumatized-me to stop fretting about everything that could go wrong and give our relationship a chance. But that’s another story.
2- The Cornflakes personality doesn’t tolerate mistreatment. Yet doesn’t get flustered about it either.
David is so deeply convinced of his own value, he doesn’t waste energy explaining it to people. If someone is being rude or inattentive to him, he just walks away. More than an ex-girlfriend found out the hard way. Me? I spent over a decade of my life being treated badly, and needed years of therapy before I had the guts to put an end to the mistreatment.
3- The Cornflakes Personality is Efficient and Reliable.
David is reliable like the sun, and expects reliability from other people —while I’m the woman who’s always expecting everyone to fail. Having grown up in a place where from water to electricity, you could never count on a service, I always assume services will not work. I still drive to the post office and refuse to leave stamped mail in the mailbox, because I still can’t believe that a mailman will really come and get it. I’m still surprised each time the USPS comes through and delivers my mail without losing it.
In the same subject, David is compulsively punctual and has low tolerance for tardy people. I am too, and that’s one of the reasons why I always felt like a misfit in the DR, where people proudly said that “Dominican time” is two hours later than what was stamped in every invitation.
But there is something else to being an American, beyond self-confidence, reliability and punctuality. It’s an adjective that had eluded me until now. It’s something difficult to explain, self-assurance above and beyond what I’ve ever been able to achieve. The word hit me recently: Entitlement.
I was amazed to realize there is no Spanish equivalent for the world Entitlement. Google translates it as “Derecho” (that actually translates to “Right”) or “Privilegio.” (privilege). But the word ‘Entitlement’ has an extra ring. A ring that can sometimes come across as arrogance, but the rest of the time is “Good things are not only my right and privilege. I deserve them.”
THAT is the difference between Plantain-Me and Cornflakes-David. He cruises through life assuming that when things don’t go his way, that’s the exception to the rule and not the norm. That gives him an edge on taking risks, and he gets away with more in life than me. He expects good outcomes, and most of the time the world says, “Amen.”
There is such thing as the power of the mind. Me? I’m convinced that the Handyman will not show up—and he doesn’t. I’m convinced that my airline will mess up my seat—and they do. I’m convinced that all other authors in the world (those who had the privilege of growing up eating cornflakes) will have an edge of advantage over me, and my efforts for promotion will be in vain—and more often than not, the world says, “Amen.”
I can already hear other “Cornflakes Science Scholars” refute my theories. “You didn’t describe the American Archetype, you described the White-Male Syndrome!” And I can also see my Dominican relatives roll their eyes and say, “Why are you praising entitlement? It’s the same quality that has made the US invade other countries and help themselves everyone else’s natural resources.” I can even add that there are many advantages to growing without entitlement: You’re more likely to appreciate and be grateful for the little things you do get.
Yes, having too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. But having zero of it, becomes worse.
In this Fourth of July, I want to summon the power of the good parts of the American Archetype. (I want to learn to value myself without so much self-doubt.) I want to invoke the wonderful feeling that someone has my back, so it’s okay to take risks. I want to learn to feel that I deserve good things to happen to me. Let’s just get rid of the “Winners and Losers” part of the equation, and let’s all of us bring a little more Cornflakes into our lives.
Happy Fourth of July.
Do you miss the SexlessIn The Boondocks Short stories? Send me an email! Between a husband, four kids, a full time job and an obsession for writing fiction, I’m stretched a little thin right now and trying to prioritize.