So, what’re you gonna do, blow this place up?” an elderly man asked me as we were touring an open-air church. “Why would I do something like that, that’s crazy,” I told him. “Isn’t that what you guys do?” he asked.

The man thoughtfully let me know he was “just kidding” and that he knew there were “normal ones like you, like Muhammad Ali.” (He’d met Muhammad Ali, and confirmed “we” weren’t all going to blow things up.)

At age 15 that experience finally opened my eyes. It got me thinking about how the media powerfully affect the paradigms through which people perceive things. Who were the “you guys” and “normal ones” he referred to? Who helped him develop such definitions? It definitely had something to do with the way he gathered information about people who blow places up.

What shook me more than anything was that this man could so casually joke with a stranger in such a way. It seemed as though he thought I was used to dealing with such comments, or that I should expect them. After all, aren’t I part of a backward tradition, on unfamiliar turf, yet to be enlightened?

Not quite. Being American-born, bred and fed, while also dealing with myriad misconceptions, has led me on a special quest. We love to categorize and classify ourselves, because we think it helps us better understand our context. So I thought of the different ways the American phenomenon has been described.

First, there was the “melting pot.” A filmstrip in the third grade called “Community” introduced this phrase to my jargon. It told us America was a wonderful place, because of such great diversity and how everyone was so happy living together.

Then more recently, I ran into the “salad bowl.” We’re all different, and instead of melting together, we retain our identities amidst our trials in a Salad Shooter. Our society still has great diversity and everyone is still happy living together, but we’re more cut up.

I sort of boiled down these concepts into two terms – assimilation and pluralism. It is almost as if the salad bowl came about so people would not feel they had to live up to total assimilation. But, I was not satisfied with either concept. There was still something missing. My quest to redefine America continued. I headed to my cupboard.

While evaluating my collection of tin cans (note: college kids don’t have great selection), Campbell’s granted me an epiphany: the notorious A, B and C, better known as Alphabet Soup. That’s what we are. Forget about a melting pot. Forget about the chopped vegetables. We are distinct letters making up a versatile alphabet, which come together to form strong and powerful unions (words).

I felt much better. In being distinct letters, we are able to maintain our unique shapes and sounds without having to sell out our values, and still unite for common causes. Even while we may have conflicts, we are floating in the same broth and must learn to coexist.

This is how I have learned to deal with others’ ignorance and inquisitiveness. My faith may be negatively portrayed at times, but it has been the definitive force in my way of life as I carve out an American identity.

So, while everyone is updating their cultural literacy and adding “alphabet soup” as the new catchphrase, maybe we can be more cognizant of how we label others. And just in case anyone was wondering, I won’t be blowing any places up – I’ll be studying for exams.

Nafeesa Syeed is a sophomore in the College.

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