What is American?

What is American?

I might be the only American so far to have ever appeared on Channel 4’s “One Born Every Minute” or the follow-up, “One Born: What Happened Next?” These are documentaries showcasing pregnant women in the build-up to meeting their new babies and of course, what life is like post-baby. I was flattered to have been a part of the show and the film crew who worked with my family and myself were truly good folk. However, looking back I think much was made of my American-ness, especially in the follow-up episode. For me, the novelty has long worn off, being an American in Britain; I think of myself now as partially British too, since I have been here for going on seven years. Most of my major life events, since being an adult, have occurred on this Island – I got my Master’s here; I’ve been married here; I’m proud to say that I’ve had two kids in NHS hospitals. People no longer have that curiosity when they hear my accent (thank God! There’s only so many times I can answer the question “Why did you come here?!” which tends to get on my proverbial tits, as the British like to say.) I am a British citizen, and I paid through the nose to say that. I’m still American – I prefer freedom of speech, I still hold the belief that higher taxes are in general, distasteful and, frankly, yes – I’d rather drive my car three blocks away than walk. If that makes me obese, so be it. I didn’t attempt my driver’s test eight times to leave my car at home. So, to recap, I am American. I’m also British too. I’m a walking Special Relationship. But, I’ve been this way for awhile – the mysteries of my immigration status have long ceased to be interesting. Yet the One Born team were intent upon bringing out those cartoonish qualities that much of the world associates with being American.

For instance: there has been a Krispy Kreme in our area for a couple of years now. My husband and I enjoy taking the kids there sometimes, not because we’re especially fond of donuts, and in no way do we do it because it reminds me of “home”. If anything, Krispy Kreme is a Manhattan institution; it was featured in a Beastie Boys song, for God’s sake. Is there one on every street corner in the United States? No. If the Krispy Kreme were a Dunkin Donuts however, I’d feel differently, and maybe I would go to it from time to time for nostalgic reasons, but this is not why we go to Krispy Kreme. We go to Krispy Kreme for the same reason anyone goes to Krispy Kreme – because you can watch the donuts being made. And because the donuts are pretty good – that’s why people line the streets of New York at 6am, to get them while they’re hot. Now, I can understand why the One Born team assumed that I was desperate to get to Krispy Kreme for the nostalgia factor. When they caught wind that I’d sometimes take my kids there, they created a scene of us arriving, parking the car, and approaching the doors while I was encouraged to utter, “This feels just like home.” But there is no nostalgia factor in it for me. Why? Because I’ve not been homesick for about five years. And for the record, donuts are not exactly the big deal that everyone else thinks they are. Donut shops can be found all across America, but to Americans, the local donut shop is just part of the scenery – you’d expect to find one in most towns, at least in the Midwest. Believe me, I know – I used to work for a place called Donutown in Redford, Michigan (last I knew, the name is now Donuts, Delicious Donuts! on the corner of 5 Mile and Beech Daly Road.) From about the age of 14-16, I served donuts and coffee to the good people of Redford. Who are those people? Well, some are cops, as you might expect. But most of the people that I served were singletons – the Father McKenzies and Eleanor Rigbys that life seemed to pass by. They knew each other by name. They were regulars. They drank coffee, they sometimes ate a bowl of soup or chilli or, as you might expect, they might have a donut. We had the best, and I made them all – buttermilk, strawberry or blueberry cake, chocolate frosted, Boston cream, jelly-filled. You could find green ooze-filled choux pastries for St. Patrick’s Day, or red and green sprinkled frosted tops for Christmas. Paczski Day, which I found does not exist outside of the United States (maybe even outside of Southeast Michigan, who knows?) is a day where you can find the beloved Polish paczski (pronounced “punch-skee”), a golden donut filled with gorgeous red jam. I made and sold those too. Donuts, delicious donuts.


But donuts are not the big American deal that people like to think they are. So we like toroid-shaped cakes; there’s no shame in that. You Brits are quite fond of your cakes as well – the last I heard, Simon Cowell made a shedload of cash on his latest reality show about baking. But a lot of the time donut shops are mainly frequented for their coffee. Dunkin Donuts is a fine example of this – I would wager that over 70% of their revenue comes from coffee sales. Now, coffee is American. The caffeinated libation can be a communal act, which is probably why the Red Cross gives it out to their Disaster victims. The beans might grow in Ecuador or Ethiopia, they might be “French Roasted” or Arabica, but the act of pouring a “cuppa joe” is American. In America, the bottomless cup of coffee is an institution. You get free refills in most diners, which so furthers the communal act. “Can I get you a top up?” is the common question, asked by a cheery waitress, holding a beautiful globular glass coffee pot with an orange or brown handle. This coffee pot, this waitress, in Any Diner in Anytown, USA – this is American. The Diner itself is American. Exhibit A: The Ram’s Horn chain of diners. I’m not sure how many States it reaches, but I know in the Detroit area, you’re never far from a Ram’s Horn. Sure their food won’t win any Michelin stars, but with hometown favorites like a hot turkey sandwich with gravy and mashed potatoes, or a Tuna Melt (a hot tuna sandwich with melted cheddar), a BLT or a grilled cheese, you can’t go wrong. They are open 24 hours, like a lot of American places, so they cater to all crowds: the drunks that show up after the bars close at 2AM; the churchgoers in their Sunday best; the attendees of a recently-finished AA meeting; the cops on their lunch breaks; the elderly men sitting alone. Walking in to the busy waitresses, the traffic rushing by outside the windows, and the rotating display of desserts, which includes everything from a fruit cup to rice pudding, provides the ultimate feeling of comfort for me. I have many happy memories, of meeting friends and family members, some now gone, some not seen in many years – these memories will always include the wonderful laughter and secrets shared while sat in a booth, and in parting later on the phone, the expression of an intent to repeat it all over again: “I’ll meet you at Ram’s Horn.” This is American.

Ram's Horn Michigan

What else is American? I caution people not to take me as the representation of all things American – what’s American to me, might not be American to someone else. But if I were to give my two cents, along with diners and coffee, I’d add to the list some other little things – tire swings. If you’re American, you get it (if you didn’t have one, you knew someone who did and you played on it.) Also men on fishing trips. Maybe not particularly catching much, but men on fishing trips. Men lying about the size of their imagined catches, holding two hands out to an exaggerated size. Men complaining about never getting to go golfing. That’s American in it’s way (OK, I lived very close to a golf course growing up – like I said, what’s American to me might not be American to others.) Sesame Street. The Drive-Up ATM. The drive-thru. The drive-in movie. Driving – this is utterly American. We have a whole genre of American literature based on driving. Would we know the name Jack Kerouac without cars? Ahh, cars – how I love them, and how American they are. The Beach Boys sang about them, John Travolta drag raced them in Grease, and a whole generation of men and women lost their virginity in them. Heck, a whole generation of babies are probably due to a romp in the backseat of an old Chevy. Every summer in Detroit you can find the Dream Cruise – classic beauties brought out and driven across the Tri-County area, a veritable Beauty Pageant of automobiles. My Grandfather worked for General Motors, my Stepdad worked for Ford. If you didn’t have an immediate family member who worked for the Big Three – Ford, Chrysler or GM – then you knew someone who worked there. Today I have two cousins who work on the Chrysler assembly line. The Big Three dominate Detroit; it’s in our blood. For years Detroit produced the backbone, the pulse of the nation. That pulse was in the form of automobiles – beautiful beasts of steel made for harnessing freedom, to make the road lie down in front of you and be yours to take you where you wanted to go. Cars are freedom, and Detroit is cars. It’s like Eminem said: “This is what we do.”

Unfortunately, there aren’t that many American cars this side of the Atlantic, although Ford has a tangible presence. I see nary a Chevrolet, barely a Buick. Every once in awhile, I might see a PT Cruiser tooling around. I see more French cars here, some German. Maybe a Skoda or Seat sometimes. I never feel that heartbeat though, no sense of community pride that comes with a close proximity to cars. Maybe where these cars originate from, somewhere in France or who knows, nowadays maybe in Japan or elsewhere – there might be a very proud little boy or girl who tells the class that their Mom or Pop works for such-and-such car company. That pride is American, though it’s dying out. Maybe it’s political, maybe it’s natural urban evolution, but less and less are we associating ourselves with car manufacturing. Maybe some people don’t buy American cars as much (I myself drove a Kia before moving to the UK) and as such, it’s a dying industry as some say. But if I really was going to show a display of nostalgia for the One Born team, all I really had to do was visit a Ford dealership. I probably would have cried on camera, and that always raises the ratings.