University of Washington. "What do you mean you didn't know I was Mexican?", asks one of my oldest friends. "When you first knew me, my last name was [incredibly Mexican]!"
"It just never occurred to me", I shrug. "I just saw you as a Korean-American Army brat".
"Well, I mean, my dad wasn't full Mexican. And I'm actually part Native American as well."
"I didn't know that either."
She pauses for a theatrical little sweep through a doorway. "So, you know", she grins, "I am America!"
It's often put forward that all of modern life, particularly in gendered and racial spheres, is performance; but in the outposts of Albion, where American cultural colonisation isn't yet openly acknowledged, it's a whole nother thing. I am nursing a theory that a large part of the cultural malaise suffered by Antipodeans, our culture still young and impressionable, stems from a basic identity crisis: we're Americans who think we're still fundamentally British.
But it's not the British who have spent the past fifty-odd years (postdate it from Elvis) dictating directly to our unconscious. The hypnosis is all the more effective for its unintentional nature. American media doesn't mean to speak to us - even the most aggressively prescriptive American media is really only concerned with dictating ontological policy to, and reaping the price of admission from, Americans - and that is precisely why it has worked as effectively as it has.
Do most people in America make American movies (apart from in a hinky psychoanalytic cultural-dreaming sense)? No they do not: but they do consume them if they taste right, and this consumption is a fairly lucrative business, and so we have evolved to a point where America is better at making slick, digestible, articulate mass media than any other country.
And so the vast majority of movies and music and television consumed by a young non-American growing up in the English-speaking West (even one molded by the Tofu Years, on which more anon) gets to be American. And much of the American media worth a damn happens to be media that is concerned with either telling Americans how to be, or pointing out to Americans how they are.
So as to render this process less than totally irrelevant, non-Americans develop a kind of inner American, a Phantom American, which can then be by turns nurtured and chastised by American media. John Wayne was never congratulating us on our frontier spirit; neither Zabriskie Point nor Fight Club were directly chiding us for our complacent commercial slough. So we find the commonalities between Americans and ourselves, that we might get the most from what's on offer. If you're buying an Xbox game, you don't want half the disc locked until you buy extra content; if you're buying a movie ticket, you don't want half the picture's message to be addressed to someone who in no way resembles you.
The Phantom American grows with praise, learns from challenge, and takes criticism on board. By the time the Antipodean reaches adulthood, their Phantom American will have developed its own tastes, experiences and ways of thinking. It starts to have a noticeable influence on some peoples' speech, style, posture, movement. My best friend in Primary School was a guy who spoke almost entirely in the vernacular of American kids' television. He was an extreme - most people will restrict themselves to unconsciously adopting a gesture here, a speech pattern there - but it's rare to meet an Antipodean whose Phantom American isn't starting to peek around the corners of their regular identity, the way Christ's soul is said to have been larger than His physical body.
But the American has none of this. The American doesn't have a Phantom American. The American just is an American. Plenty of people in the US are very enjoyable folks as a result of their American-ness: self-effacing, gregarious, mindful of the best and worst of their country. But even the American who represents everything non-Americans despise about Americans - brash, self-centered, entitled, overly fond of fatty foods - is admirable insomuch as his American-ness has an unconflicted purity to it. Where we're us with a little bit of America on the side, they are America.
Across Seattle and America, flags are halfmasted atop skyscrapers. Flaccid in a gentle wind, they bow toward the Western-setting sun. It takes me a second before my Phantom American reminds me why this should be the case.