Belonging to Groups
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In my Japanese culture class, there have recently been several discussions about "what it means to be Japanese these days", as if being Japanese "meant something" once, but perhaps does not anymore. I have noticed that people seem to ask these types of questions rather frequently, questions such as:
Putting all sarcasm and cynicism aside, I simply do not relate to, nor do I understand the value of these kinds of questions.
Granted, it is true that being a middle-class, caucasian, not-specifically-religious American, I do not belong to many "specialized" groups. Obviously, I would not be eligible to join the "Indian-American Students Association", the "Coalition of Asian Pacific American Social Work Students", the "Society of Women Engineers", the "Black Student Association" or the "Chinese Christian Fellowship". However, even the classifications that do apply to me do not strike me as having any particular significance or importance.
For instance, I'm an American, and it is currently post-9/11/2001. But what do I feel it "means" to be an American in these post-9/11 times? Well, what do you mean what do I think it means? On September 11th, 2001, some terrorists flew airplanes into buildings, killing many innocent people. This was a terrible crime and an awful tragedy. I'm very sorry for everyone who was in the buildings when they were hit, and for everyone who lost family members and friends. I don't mean to make light of what happened or to belittle anyone's grief , but I honestly don't see how these murders change what it "means" to be American.
To me, the "meaning" of being an American is that as a citizen of America, I am subject to America's laws and the rights and responsibilities they give me. The fact that I am a citizen of this country does make it likely that I reside in the country, which I do. But of course I could just as easily live somewhere else. Granted, some of these rights are quite significant and far-reaching, but that's all they are; legal rights. If I were to relinquish my American citizenship and acquire Canadian citizenship, German citizenship, or Venezuelan citizenship, then I would be a Canadian, a German, or a Venezuelan citizen who used to be an American citizen, but that's all. This is not to say that I don't like, or am against America -- on the contrary, I enjoy the rights I receive by being a citizen of this country, and generally admire many of the country's institutions and traditions. Even for those institutions that I do not admire, I am happy to have the right to attempt to change them. But beyond these types of things, I do not feel some kind of intrinsic or mystical attachment to the country.
By the same token, people sometimes ask questions like: "What does it really mean to be a man?". Well, I'm a man, and to me, it pretty much means that I have a Y-chromosome and a certain set of genitals. In my case, being a man is tied into the fact that I'm attracted to women, but of course that is not common to all men. Sure, there are a lot of different social expectations that various people have about how men might typically behave, what kinds of things men might typically do, what types of things men should do, etc.., but what do I care about those? There are as many of these sets of ideas as there are people thinking them. It's not like they all add up to one grand, unified theory of what it "means" to be a "man".
So, I don't understand what people mean by these kinds of questions. But since many people seem to think they are so important, I am curious to know what other people think.What does it mean to be American, or Japanese (or whatever country you may be from)? Are you a man or woman who thinks there is an important meaning to being a member of your gender? Or are you confused, as I am, by the importance some people place on these types of questions? If you have thoughts on the matter, and you feel like taking the time, perhaps you'd like to set me straight. If I get interesting responses, perhaps I will include them in another article on the subject. In any case, I'd be interested to hear what members of the "general public" have to say about this.