Foreignness is strange. Americanness is stranger. It’s subtler, like the feeling of self-consciousness when I order an Americano and feel my place in a heritage of the (however briefly) expatriated longing for a cup of brewed coffee. Perplexed and under caffeinated, I am learning what it is to be foreign and what it is to be American. The Americanness is what surprises me.

I recently boarded a plane and an Irish man engaged me in conversation. He was a Civil War buff who had been to the U.S. several times and had some strong and, truth be told, bizarre opinions. “The United States,” he said, “is not a nation. It is a confederation of states. Ireland is a nation.” I bristled.

While my travel aquaintance’s view of the U.S. seems out of left field even for a non-American, it did give me pause. In Ireland, I am sometimes reminded of my Americanness in tangible ways. My passport is blue and I have to get it stamped in the Non-EU line at the airport. My accent is wider and more nasally. When I’m picking out salad greens, I look for “arugula” instead of “rocket.” When I can’t find it, I get frustrated because the grocery stores here are inefficient and I think I could make them better.

What really catches me off-guard, however, is feeling my Americanness in the abstract and missing my imagined community very strongly. I belong more to Oregon (where I have never visited and may never go) than to Belgium, where I went last week. I feel a connection to Iowans and Hawaiians and Texans that far exceeds only a humanist bond. Alaska is farther away from my state, New Jersey, than New Jersey is from Europe. So why, when I think Alaska, do I still think home?

When I first arrived in Ireland and people asked where I was from, I said, “the U.S.,” or, if I wanted to spend the breath, “the United States.” “Oh, the States!” my interlocutor would say. “The States! I’ve been to Miami and Las Vegas and New York City and LA.” Always (for some reason) these cities. But more notably, always “the States.” As if the plurality was the only essential bit and the “United” superfluous. I now say the “the States,” in conversation, but it always feels awkward in my mouth. Why do I feel that the “United” is essential? Isn’t it?
How do I explain that Americanness doesn’t sound like English? That it doesn’t look like a Walmart or J.Crew aisle or smell like an apple pie?

We talk a lot about nationalism—if it is good, if it is bad, if it is real, if it is necessary. Whatever it is, it is on my mind all the time. I feel it nagging at my heels when I cross streets where the cars drive on the opposite side of the road.  

Waiting for a walk signal, my Americano in hand, I make my list.

Americanness is uncanny, the foreign always familiar. It isn’t having or not having guns, it’s worrying about them.

Americanness is race with a big question mark and religion with a big ellipsis and work ethic all in quotations.

Americanness is knowing that there are 300 million people and a few islands and an enormous land mass in the Western hemisphere that you are supposed to be allowed to belong to and that are supposed to belong to each other. It is as big as homesickness and as soft as my favorite blanket and as loud as a call with one as the country code.

How is it so big and so little at the same time? When does it fit and when does it feel too large or small? What is it about “we” that is so irresolvable but so strong that it spans oceans and thousands of miles, the magnetic field of us-ness reaching me all the way in Ireland, huddled around my coffee cup, with my me-ness compass’s arrow pointed home?

Katherine Churchill is a member of the Class of 2016.