On Becoming an Un-Hyphenated American

The knock on the door sounded official. 

It was the United States Census. "Do you live here? What is your name?"

As I said it, a gleam came into his eye. "Are you a Ukrainian-American?" he asked.

It wasn't always like this. When we moved from Venezuela to America in 1956, the United States government was concerned that I become an American without ethnicity attached. The immigration agent at LaGuardia Airport wanted to change my name to Walter. He explained that it would be easier for me to have a name that sounded American as I grew up. My mother refused.

The government did not give up so easily. In school, Spanish and Ukrainian were not accepted languages. I needed to learn English quickly. I still remember my teachers. They took time to help me become an American. 

They started with the basics, to help my transition from rural Venezuela to urban America. A sixth-grade teacher noticed I could not pronounce the "TH" sound and sent me to speech therapy for two years to learn how to place my tongue on my teeth to pronounce "the" just like the native-born Americans. The speech therapist also taught me to speak English without the Spanish cadence.

By high school, I spoke English like a native. The only giveaway that I was different was my name.

As I became more American, more Americans insisted that I really was an ethnic American. So by 1968, I was not sure who I was or to which country I belonged.

My mother once said, "There are only two things wrong with Americans. One, they are incredibly naïve about the world, and two, they do not realize how lucky they are."

In 1968, our family watched in disbelief and horror as the only country that offered hope and a future for planet Earth ripped apart. We saw an unpopular war, political assassinations, and riots. We saw freedoms fall, once again, behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia and an America too preoccupied with its own troubles to even protest.

It was during these turbulent times that I began the process of becoming an American citizen. But I was still unsure if this was my country. I finished college at the University of California, Berkeley. At the time, it was ground zero for the native anti-American movement. It was unbelievable to see American college students carrying the red flags of communism. To my parents, the hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag symbolized death and famine.

I was unsure if I was an American. 

Foresters always have a strong attraction to blank places on a map. Canada had a lot of blank places. Confused and unsure of America's future and my own, I decided to move to Canada to attend graduate school.

Canada is a very different country. The first clue was when I changed my greenback dollars to the multicolored Canadian bills. There on the front was a picture of her, the Queen of the Commonwealth. When I went to the post office, there she was again beaming down behind the postal clerks. I remember thinking, "Who elected her queen?"

I was thinking like an American.

In response to the kidnapping of government ministers, press censorship was imposed throughout Canada. No one complained or demonstrated. It dawned on me that the First Amendment did not apply north of the border.

I had a hard time adapting to Canadian society and higher education. As I walked into a seminar on forestry research, little did I know that this presentation would change my life.

A graduate student spent ten minutes talking about the historical differences between Canada and the United States. He pointed out that a corporation, the Hudson Bay Company, founded Canada. There was no revolution in Canada. He joked that the reason Canadians have socialized medicine is that it began as a corporate benefit. Like most businesses, the emphasis is on fitting in with the corporate culture. Creativity and individualism are not encouraged in Canada.

During that brief lecture, I realized that I was never going to fit in Canada. Being born in one country, raised in another culture, and educated in a third, you are always guaranteed to be different. I needed to live in a country where individuals are valued.

America requires that you believe in the social experiment started over two hundred years ago. You must believe in America and the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

I packed my truck, stuck Allman Brothers into the tape deck, and left Canada playing "Southbound" at maximum volume. When I hit the border, the agent asked why I was entering the United States. With a grin, I said, "I'm coming home." He said, "Over to the side, and start unpacking the truck."

Even that request did not change my mood. America might have been going to hell in a handbasket during the early 1970s, but I was going to go along for the ride. There was not a better country in the world for me. For better or worse, this is my country.

Even so, I still viewed myself as a hyphenated American.

Change came in 1976. I got accepted to graduate school at Berkeley, so I quit my job, bought a bicycle in England, and started pedaling through Europe. The highlight of the trip for me was the time behind the Iron Curtain.

While traveling through the Soviet Union, I noticed that people identified me as an American, or as an American with Ukrainian parents.

I took a Soviet ship from Finland to England. At the registration desk a young, attractive Soviet woman asked my name and nationality. "Vladimir Steblina, Ukrainian-American," I answered. Her reply, in the best icy commissar style, was, "No such thing."

I had plenty of time to ponder her comment.

The reason we were in America was that the family farm in the Ukraine was confiscated, my grandmother shot, and my father made homeless and an orphan at the age of ten.

The Ukraine was part of our tragic family history. America, on the other hand, gave us not only one opportunity, but second and third chances.

I realized that I owed America everything. I was not born an American. English is my third language, but I take pride in the ideals, values, and achievements of this country.

I cheapen the value of America and give credit to a sorry chapter in our family's history by insisting on hyphenating my nationality.

Unfortunately, the American government now thinks differently.

The census taker repeated his question.

I replied, "I would rather be just an American, but I suppose technically I am a Latino of European origin."

"I do not have a box for Latinos of European origin," he said.

I just shrugged.

And your daughter, is she a Latino of European origin?"

I shook my head. "No, you don't understand. The reason we came to this country was so she could be an American. She is a good one, too. She has the poise, the confidence, the sense of fair play, the optimism, the drive to succeed, and the tolerance that marks America."

I am disappointed that my own government wants to hyphenate me.

At least my daughter is un-hyphenated. I hope she realizes how lucky she is to be just an American.

Vladimir Steblina, Wenatchee, Washington, is retired from the U.S. Forest Service. He has a blog on public lands at usbackroads.blogspot.com.