For fifteen of the past seventeen years, I have lived in the tiny town of Hopedale. Five thousand people, mostly children and the elderly, call this 5.4-square-mile town home. Once a radical utopian community visited by such greats as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglas, Hopedale has now faded into obscurity. It could be described as a bedroom community: its big main street businesses include Hopedale House of Pizza and Jenny's, a new coffee shop. And in this quiet community, more than ninety-five percent of the residents are white, Christian, and middle class. As a young child, I naively believed that every American is like the people of my hometown. However, as I grew older and realized how wrong I was, I learned to question whether any stereotype of a typical American is valid.
During elementary school, my afternoons where spent at daycare where I met a friend who surprised me by unknowingly confronting my naivete. Unlike the dozens of other children I had played with, she had beautiful dark chocolate-brown skin and black hair done in braids. She did not fit into my world's neatly organized garden of white tulip people, and suddenly I wondered if my garden was as colorful as it should have been.
A few years later, when I was nine years old, I was invited to a birthday party for a new friend, and I was amazed to see the differences between my six-room home, which I assumed to be a universal model, and hers. The party took place in a huge family room filled with lavish comforts such as wall-to-wall carpeting, draftless new windows, and a computer. Though it seemed like a palace, in retrospect I realize that my friend's eight-room house was not unusual for a middle class family. My surprise at seeing both her mother and father cheerfully organizing amusing party games and slicing colorfully iced birthday cake has also diminished. But, the experience proved to me that even within a single small town, there are differences in wealth and way-of-life.
By the time I entered high school, I experienced many new situations and met many new people. I learned the differences between people are so vast that the minor ones between my life and my childhood friends are insignificant in comparison.
Events in my own life easily disproved my early stereotype of the typical American. Now I question whether a typical American exists and, if one does, who that person may be. Though people in this country may be vastly different from each other in many ways, I wonder whether there are common threads that tie the millions of Americans together, uniting our country. Maybe the simple fact that we all live in the same country, learn the same history, and pay taxes to the same Internal Revenue Service is enough to make all of us typical Americans. Perhaps, though, something greater than that links us: our belief in the ideals of freedom and democracy, or our common heritage as immigrants and children of immigrants might be better characteristics to bring us together than our physical, social, or economic characteristics. The more I encounter different types of people and different ways of life, the more I am unsure about what an American really is. -
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.