Are Liberals Ashamed to Be American?

Recently I had a much more productive conversation with my half-Indian coworker than before. It was a slow, quiet Friday afternoon. There were only three people in the office and he happened to be working on a project right next to me.

I don’t remember how we started but we were soon talking about the differences between Americans and Indians. Particularly around politics and “corruption.” He has a fascinating theory that bribery and corruption create a bond of trust between the common man and authority that we lack in America. I can’t speak for him, but it seemed that he sees Americans as woefully legalistic and unable to understand the importance of shades of gray.

At some point we were briefly talking about religion also. He is an atheist, though from a Hindu family. He reminisced about performing the rituals by rote. I said that it’s important to me to not just repeat rituals through memorization but to understand the whys behind what we do.

“That’s such an American way to look at it,” he said, but then backpedaled a bit as he realized that statement could be potentially insulting (to a supposed-Indian-wannabe like me, right?)

And I did feel a little sting.

Then I wondered why. I am American. Of course I bring  my American perspective to my practice of Hinduism. (Though his explanation suddenly made it more clear why pandits seem to rush through Sanskrit at break-neck speeds. It’s not necessarily important for us to understand what they are saying, the things just need to be said).

So where is the insult? I think for many liberal Americans we don’t like our viewpoint reduced to “that’s so American” because we like to see ourselves as more worldly, cosmopolitan, knowledgeable. We like to show off how much we know about other cultures and compete with how much we can respect the hec out of those other cultures!

This is where we liberal Americans get in trouble for not taking enough pride in our heritage. Conservative Americans will say that we are not patriotic enough and therefore not “real” Americans, while we worry that being identified too strongly as American means that we are less knowledgeable and empathetic to people in other countries. When a fellow American complains to The Gap about having a Muslim model (who is actually Sikh), we pride ourselves on being smarter than that, knowing the difference, knowing also that Muslim models would be a good thing. We don’t want to be associated with that ignorance and so distance ourselves from being labeled what we are: American.

We want to be more than a stereotype of Americans who can’t see past their own noses.

Yet too often that pride masks from ourselves the ignorance that we do still have. I’ve said before, none of us are without biases and my point of view is an American one.

There was an unintended subtle insult to my post about Hindu hospitality and how it differs from the American culture of making plans and not just dropping in. For some people, there is an insult in saying that if you like to know your plans ahead of time, you’re so American and perhaps implied to be not spiritual or hospitable.

Perhaps we have internalized the outsiders view of us as materialistic, self important, vain, and Godless. So much time spent trying to prove that we know about the world and what we take away from it is the world’s view of ourselves and then we become desperate to prove that that’s not us. Maybe looking for identity anywhere but where we grew.

Saying that my perspective was American was also a way of saying that it was tainted by Christianity. He made the argument that in older religions you do things because God told you to. Not because you have a personal connection or need to understand why. Christians brought those ideas with them. (Maybe that’s where the insult really lies for me. Being connected in any way to Christianity is very upsetting to me).

I think, though, in Hinduism there is another reason we do things by rote. From what I have learned of world religions it seems to me that Judaism and Islam have a strong connection to we do these things because God asked us to and we love and respect God, so we do it. In Hinduism I think the reason we say and do certain things has more to do with the alignment within the body. We chant in Sanskrit to create certain vibrations within us. We perform rituals and movements in certain ways because they spiritually align us (and I believe that’s where the practice of Hatha Yoga comes from).

So is it a bad thing that I bring an American point of view to my religious life? I don’t think so.

I am what I am. I am an American and so that’s always the perspective I’m going to bring to my life.

Am I an Indian-wannabe? I don’t see myself that way. Okay, there are times where it feels like my life would be a lot easier if my skin were brown (irony, much?). But I’ve always believed that there are valuable things in both Indian culture and American culture and that it’s good to seek out the best in each to bring to my spiritual practice.

I’m not Indian. I am American. But I am also Hindu. There are plenty of us American Hindus, of all ethnicities including Indian. We might have a new way to look at ancient practices and maybe that new light can help all of us Hindus see more clearly.

So I will not be ashamed. If wanting to understand the rituals that I’m performing makes me American, then so be it. Because I do like to understand the rituals I participate in. (Now, whether that actually is an “American” way to look at it, I’m not sure. )

 

Captain America


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About Ambaa Choate

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Jeramy Hansen

    So,

    1) The concept of “real American” is kind of a bullshit false dichotomy, in that America is specifically suppose to be a plural society … our de facto motto (before the Christian religious fervor spurred on by McCarthyism got “In God We Trust” made into the actual motto) was “E Pleribus Unum” which means, “From many, one”, the implication being that our many and diverse voices unite to create this great country. Embracing different viewpoints is inherently American … I’m not saying it’s an American invention, I’m just saying that NOT tunnel-visioning on your one narrow viewpoint does not preclude one from being American.

    2) I completely agree with you and think you bringing your own viewpoint to your religion is correct and good. If someone wants to pray without understanding what they’re saying, that’s fine. You want to understand what you’re signing yourself up for, and that’s fine, too :)

    3) There are PLENTY of Christians that don’t question their faith. Questioning doesn’t make you any more Christian than not-questioning makes one Hindu.

  • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

    “This is where we liberal Americans get in trouble for not taking enough pride in our heritage. Conservative Americans will say that we are not patriotic enough and therefore not “real” Americans”

    Words have power, and political types know it. The conservative parties have co-opted the terms “heritage” and “patriot” in such ways that it is becoming easier and easier for liberals to distance themselves from these terms. ‘Heritage’ is often used alongside pictures of white founding fathers, some of whom were slaveowners; pictures of people kneeling in a church or shaking hands with the friendly priest who would never molest a child (or if so, it would never become a known fact); pictures of 1950s nuclear families where the wife cooks, the husband eats, and the children are neat and well-behaved. The world isn’t like that. The country isn’t like that. This isn’t the only story of our founding and sustenance. No wonder we distance ourselves. And as far as ‘patriot’ going – that noble term used to mean someone who would fight and die for their country – has now been watered down to mean that guy on the Internet who says “Merica – love it or leave it.” Sigh.

    It isn’t that we’re ashamed to be American – it is that the narrative has changed.

    Am I ashamed of some of the things my country has done? Yes. I am not a jingoist who thinks that the USA has done no wrong, ever. Is it a bad thing to be honest about one’s history? Or should we whitewash it in the name of patriotism?

    “That’s so American” can be used as an insult when it’s used by people who have negative stereotypes about Americans. But it’s not the same as when it’s said to point to a very particular cultural quality – and yes, America has a (many) culture(s) too!

    The meeting started at 9 and you got there at 8:55? That’s so American.
    You bumped into someone and apologized? That’s so American.
    You saw a guy walking his dog, told him he had a cute dog, then reached down and actually pet it? That’s so American.
    You got uncomfortable when there were more than seven people in the elevator? That’s so American.
    You told her that there was no need to put her parents’ names and occupations on her resume? That’s so American.

    Sometimes it’s just pointing out a cultural trait, to say something is “so American.” At other times, it’s an insult. But most of the time, I’d say it isn’t, and instead of taking it to heart, see where you can use it to compare how people would react in other cultures and start a dialogue.

    • Ambaa

      Is it weird that I’m embarrassed that I like my personal space? I feel like if I were really “multi cultural” and “cultured” that I would be at ease with the kinds of crowds one encounters in India!

      • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

        You shouldn’t be embarrassed about that! We are products of our culture. Everyone is. As I mentioned on another blog, I don’t think that we should try to become “Indianised” and it’s not even a goal we should have. We are who we are – navigating cultures is good but you will always be who you are, the sum total of ALL your experiences.

  • Sri

    It is not a matter of fact that whether he is an American or Indian or an African. But, he is an atheist. He did not find any logics in any religion. He feels that trying finding logics is American way of looking at matters.
    There are millions of people in US believe blindly they are sinners just because Adam ate the apple. We may think that we are sinners but the reason for that can be explained more logically with the concept of reincarnation than the apple story. Adam felt shyness for the first time after eating the apple. Is it a reason for sin? No, it is the lust and desire is the source of sin though lust and desire itself is not sin.
    Advaita philosophy developed in India was only by asking questions like who is God? Who I am? What is the link, connection, relationship between me and God? Without these questions there is no Advaita philosophy.
    In every country there will be some people question everything and there will be some people never question anything and accept anything blindly. The attitude of trying to understand is must in Hinduism unlike other religion. It is that thirst that makes you know more, understand more and experience more about the nature of God. There are people who do not understand their religion may sometimes become atheist .

    • Ambaa

      Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  • JohnE_o

    It is unlikely that one can correctly describe groups of people that number in the hundred millions as all holding the same opinion about anything.

    Some liberals might be ashamed of America at some time. Others not.

    Also, it is quite possible to be a liberal American and also to be completely unconcerned about what people from other cultures think about Americans.


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