What does it actually mean to be an American?

Written By Chandni Shah, Co-Opinions Editor

What does it mean to be an American?

This past weekend, I was asked this question for a midterm paper in a psychology of diversity class. I would like to expound on my answer, as I thought this was a particularly insightful and thoughtful learning activity. 

So, what does it mean to be an American? My mind immediately went to the plethora of somewhat ridiculous proverbs that this country has built itself on: pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the early bird gets the worm, no rest for the weary, etc. The ideas of hard work and doing that hard work by yourself are the underlying themes of these sayings. 

Americans pride themselves on individuality and self-reliance. Working your way up from the bottom all the way to the top with no outside help (and doing it successfully) is a clear tale that has influenced many people in this country—including myself. 

When I embarked on my journey to downtown Pittsburgh to attend this university, the first thing I did was apply for minimum wage jobs. I got hired but quickly realized that $7.25 an hour wasn’t going to pay my tuition, but in my head, I was saying, “I can’t ask my mom for help, I have to do this on my own, I’m an adult now.” Rather than paying the entirety of my tuition, I applied for a payment plan, wracked up many late fees on the account, and in the end, had to ask my parents for help anyways. 

I could’ve saved myself a lot of time and stress if I just had asked for help in the first place. But no, I’m an American adult. I need to do it on my own. How I developed this mentality, I’m not entirely sure. I think it had something to do with seeing my parents struggle financially as a kid and then picking up the same mindset somewhere along the way—that I was going to make it on my own, no matter the cost. 

If growing up poor in America has taught me anything, it’s that poor people are proud, which has its pros and cons, as all things do. 

Somewhere in the midst of this pandemic, I have realized my fault in believing that my self-reliance is a sign of my pride. My individuality makes me unique, as it does every single one of us, but the ability to ask for help and not be ashamed of it is brave. 

Over the past year, many Americans have been speaking out more about the struggles they have been enduring on social media platforms. These struggles vary from ongoing racism, money, work, mental health, childcare, and simply feeling lonely. Individual battles turn into conversations that guide others to seek help and prove as a reminder that you are not alone. 

I have begun to ask for help and assistance in all aspects of my life—help with work, school, my mental health, money. 

The assistance I have received is not a sign of weakness, but as a whole has made me stronger. 

What does it mean to be an American? It means struggling, but not by yourself. It also means being able to understand or have sympathy for others who are going through their own problems. Being American means you have millions of other Americans around you who, more often than not, are willing to lend a hand.