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Retirement Planning > Retirement Investing

What Does It Mean to Be an American?

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The Bigger Picture is part of Investment Advisor‘s year-long 35th anniversary celebration in which we look at the environment in which advisors operate, and will operate, by delivering insights from some non-traditional sources.

Ike (pronounced Eekay) Uzondu, the protagonist of novelist Okey Ndibe’s 2014 book “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” wants desperately to be American. Not just on paper (though despite the many odds stacked against him, he manages to acquire citizenship), but for everything that he believes being a true American promises.

“Ike comes to this country in search of an American identity through a particular hunger, a particular brutal necessity,” said Ndibe in an interview with Investment Advisor.

His novel about the misadventures of Ike, a New York City cab driver from Nigeria, has won numerous accolades and was selected by New York Times critic Janet Maslin as one of her 10 favorite books of 2014. “And naturally, as a cum laude economics graduate of one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in America,” Ndibe said of Ike, “he feels entitled to pursue what America has promised, notably the prospect of becoming a big shot in a corporation.”

Ike, though, falls short of that goal. Despite his impressive academic credentials, he has an accent that’s difficult to understand. He talks like a “Zulu,” he’s told, (“Zulu” is apparently the collective moniker for anyone from Africa), and because of that, no one in corporate America will hire him.

“If speechlessness were possible, then Ike would be the perfect American,” Ndibe said. “But his accent gives him away, wipes out his credentials and makes him into damaged goods.”

Ike has to resort to desperate measures to earn the American identity and belonging he so craves, and his experiences echo those of many in America who are still fighting to get the acceptance they desire because of what they look like, how they sound or where they came from.

The Academic View

But in America today, things are also changing rapidly in the other direction. Accents and credentials, heritage and experience are increasingly converging. As they do, the notions of American identity—what it means to be American and to belong to this country—are also changing. Change is happening to such an extent that Deborah Schildkraut, professor of American politics and political psychology at Tufts University, believes the U.S. is on the cusp of a major identity shift, where being American and belonging to America are going to be defined in much more nuanced, multi-faceted ways. As that happens, she said, the traditional narrow idea of an American identity that many still retain will be increasingly challenged.

Consider that in 2014, the overall number of Latino, African-American and Asian students in public school classrooms across the nation exceeded for the first time the enrollment of white students. “That’s a huge shift and it has implications for so many things—what should be taught, how it should be taught and so on,” said Schildkraut, who has done extensive research on identity in America. “Public school is where you learn about nationalism and patriotism. Now, the majority of kids coming into the classrooms are on the outside of the traditional definitions of those concepts.”

America has always been a nation of immigrants, and the notion that there is room here for all has long been a tenet of the country, if often upheld only in the breach. As immigration from different parts of the world continues to increase and as social unrest percolates underneath society (then explodes in events like those last year in Ferguson, Missouri), Schildkraut said the debate over what constitutes American identity is likely to heat up. Should America convert the challenges of race, ethnicity and cultural differences into strengths that fortify a common identity while preserving diversity? Or should American identity remain more narrowly defined?

Schildkraut’s research has shown that despite their race, ethnicity or heritage, those who aspire to be American and to belong to America all uphold the importance of the core values that define this nation.

“There’s a certain civic definition of what it means to be American that’s centered around the rights of a democracy,” she said. “Many people believe that those define what it means to be American; there is a great deal of consensus around them.”

A Muslim American

Those concepts are important to Monem Salam, director at Saturna Capital. Salam, who has been living in Malaysia for the past three years and is president of Saturna’s subsidiary in Kuala Lumpur, realizes how much he appreciates the “embedded core values” that are American, such as “the freedom to express yourself and speak your mind in any venue.”

But there are other facets to Salam: He defines himself as an American, a Muslim and a person of Pakistani descent. All of these are important to him and they contribute to who he is in different, sometimes difficult-to-articulate ways.

“You cannot limit identity to one thing or the other; it is an amalgamation of many different things,” he said.

NPR’s hugely popular Race Card Project, which asks Americans to define themselves in six words, has underscored the fluidity of racial and ethnic identity and its multi-faceted nature. The project has shown that when people think about themselves, they have many boxes to check off—race, religion, ethnicity, facial features, skin and eye color, hair texture—all of which define who they are.

As identity becomes more multi-faceted in America, there are many implications for advisors, one of which would be a change in the makeup of the advisory profession itself as more advisors from different backgrounds join the profession. But as people increasingly articulate different explanations of who they are, advisors will need to become more familiar with the importance of those differences, Salam said. They must be aware that wealth will be created in unexpected places and that the process of financial planning cannot be monolithic.

“Advisors need to stop explaining retirement to people as ‘You’re going to be able to play golf all the time,’ because many people don’t care about golf,” Salam said. “Advisors have to be more keenly aware of communities and cultures, and also of values that matter to their clients. You have an entire generation of young people who are concerned about sustainability, for example. That’s a core value to them and as important to who they are as their religion, their culture, their ethnicity.”

Globalization has also ensured that America is far more connected to the rest of the world than it ever was. Americans of different backgrounds are investing in different markets, Salam said, but even this has its nuances.

“In the U.S., Americans of Filipino or Pakistani descent send money home to take care of family, but Vietnamese Americans are sending money back home to build up the country because it’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “Those are the kinds of distinctions advisors will need to understand.”

In Two Countries at the Same Time

Writer Ndibe’s own experiences of straddling both worlds, his native Nigeria and America, are nowhere near as unfortunate as those of his fictional hero, Ike. But having a foot in two countries, as many Americans do, has given him a much broader view on both places. Through his fiction, his political commentaries and his articles that have been published in newspapers worldwide, he’s been able to examine them both carefully and critically.

On a personal level, they’re not, he said, mutually exclusive for him, as they are not for scores of Americans today. He said, “I bring my American-ness, my Nigerian-ness and my Igbo-ness to the table” (the Igbo are an ethnic group from the southeastern part of Nigeria).

Ndibe came to the U.S. at the bidding of the eminent novelist Chinua Achebe. He’s currently working on a memoir entitled “Going Dutch and Other American Mis/Adventures” that chronicles his experiences—“some funny, some painful”—about adjusting to life in America and becoming an American.

Some years ago, Salam, whose father was a pilot for Pakistan’s national airline, made a movie entitled “On a Wing and a Prayer,” which, in a gentle and humorous way, chronicled his experiences as a Muslim trying to get flying lessons in the United States in the post-9/11 era.

More broadly, the film highlighted the multi-dimensional identity of Salam’s family, who, though they are Muslim, turn out to be no different from any other American family.


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