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The American Experience

Reflecting on what “American” means with Bill Hing

Fourth of July is here again. I can already remember last year, standing awkwardly in the kitchen of someone I hardly knew, where every table and counter top was covered with pies, chips, dip and potato salad. I was invited, sure, but the fact I only knew three people was evident.

These days we equate Fourth of July with being social, either standing over barbecues and food or beneath fireworks. 

Bill Hing and his parents
Bill Hing and his parents

But unless you are in school and have been assigned to do so, it is not often we take the time to ask each other around this time, “What does it mean to be American, anyway?”

Once celebrated as the day we declared independence, is that still what we think of when we hoist up our flags in front of our houses, or watch brilliant, colorful explosives fall from the sky? Some of us throw around the word ‘patriotism’, but what does that imply?

True, we could turn to our dictionaries and encyclopedias and dryly read aloud definitions and dates. However, there are approximately 302 million of us Americans living here in the U.S. as legal citizens, who is to say what “being American” means?

What being American means to someone who just became a citizen days, months or years ago versus a second, third or fourth generation American, versus a Native American, is likely different. It seems like it would depend on who you ask. For this reason, we recently asked our readers to simply respond to the question: “What does it mean to you to be an American?” on our website, and we still invite you to do so (you can do that here).

Meanwhile, we came across a book called, “To Be An American”, written by an attorney, author and professor who grew up just over the mountains from Globe, in Superior, Arizona. His name is Bill Ong Hing.

Nowadays, in addition to blogging regularly for the Huffington Post, Hing is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and professor emeritus at U.C. California, Davis School of Law.

We asked Hing during a brief phone interview what it meant to him to be an American.

After an aside commenting on how he missed the summers in Superior (he now lives in California) he responded:

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“My concept, my idea, of what it means to be an American is really influenced by growing up in Superior,” he said. “What it means to me, it’s very diverse.”

He then went on to describe the multiethnic environment he grew up in, which he also details in his book.

Hing was born in Superior in 1947 to one of three Chinese American families in the area, which were all essentially part of the same extended family. The rest of his peers were primarily Anglo, Mexican, Navajo and Apache. These were the kids he would play basketball and Little League with.

He learned Mexican corridos, or folk ballads, from his next-door neigbor. During the ’60s, he played guitar in a couple rock n’ roll bands in high school, one of which gained local popularity. They called themselves the “UNs”, short for United Nations, because the members included a Chinese American (Hing), a Mexican American, and Scandinavian and German descendants.  As he describes his upbringing in Superior in his book, Hing says this:

“Although I left Superior after graduating from high school to attend college at U.C. Berkeley, my early life in Superior has profoundly influenced my thinking on multicultural, multiracial, and multi-religious communities, class distinctions, and social values. Although life was not without strife, my family was part of a larger community that respected our Chinese American identity and culture. We learned about and respected other cultures and languages. I learned values and approaches to life from people of all backgrounds, from my Catholic Mexican American playmates to my Jewish high school history teacher, from Navajo and German customers to the chief administrator of the local mine. In retrospect, the opportunity to hear different perspectives was clearly an advantage.

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 8.39.48 PM My life after high school — at U.C. Berkeley, in law school, in Chinatown, at the Buddhist church, as a legal services attorney, immigration lawyer, academic, participant in community activities, spouse, and parent — has reinforced the values I began to develop in Superior. How could I not be influenced by my African American college roommate from Texas, the jazz band we formed, People’s Park, or the all-Asian American fraternity I initially spurned but ultimately joined?… My early life in Superior and all of these subsequent life experiences have created impressions — some would say biases — that lead to views about America and being an American that one might loosely call cultural pluralism.”

As we finished our conversation over the phone Hing told me that he still comes back to Superior twice a year, and that his perspective on what it means to be American has not changed since his childhood.

“You don’t have to be of European descent,” he said. “Anyone can be an American.”


If you would like to tell us what being American means to you, you can do so by clicking on this link: What does it mean to be American?






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