Saleem bit into his hamburger with marked gusto. More gusto than anyone other than a vampire delving into a neck should. But this was his inaugural Fourth of July in the U.S. and he didn’t want to be accused of not expressing enough enthusiasm, enough gratitude. This barbeque was significant to him for a number of reasons: chiefly, it was his first as an official, bona fide American citizen and second, it was was being put on by his boss, a portly man in his late forties who might still see fit to give him a promotion if he played his cards right. In Saleem’s current role as customer service representative, he had received nothing but positive feedback from avid complainers decrying the lackluster nature of the company he worked for, ProZaeic. And though, as far as Saleem could tell, all ProZaeic did was provide quality textbooks to educators, it so often seemed that many a student and teacher at the college level alike enjoyed bewailing the apparently low, ill-researched quality of the content.
But really, shouldn’t they already be well-versed in the subject of the Declaration of Independence anyway? The lack of explanation and analysis behind the document tended to be the foremost complaint in the past couple weeks as the Fourth of July approached–with summer school scholars in particular calling to blame Saleem for being unable to pass their final exams and therefore move on to the next scholastic step. One that would allow them to fully forget all this information and start anew. Saleem frequently found this to be the most peculiar thing about Americans: that they treated education as an obligation instead of a privilege that yielded the reward of enrichment. Where he had come from–Yenipazar in Turkey–erudition was both highly sought after and revered. This is, in part, what drew him to America, for he had secured acceptance at Antioch College to get his degree in Education–thus his current semi-apropos job. Though the school was located in the small town of Yellow Springs, Saleem opted to find a lodging situation in Dayton, where he would not only get a better sense of “real” American life, but also be able to more easily secure a means to support himself with a part-time occupation. Naturally, this is how he found himself to be the youngest employee at ProZaeic. It was more than likely for this very reason that Don–that was his boss’ name–was so adamant about inviting him to this “shindig,” as he called it.
“Pam’ll introduce you to a lot of people your own age. She teaches over at the high school, ya know. You can ask her all about the process–what it takes to become a teacher in this district, the thankless students, et cetera.”
Until Saleem met Don, he had never heard someone use the word “et cetera.” It was among Don’s favorites in the English language, it seemed, as he wielded it in just about every scenario and environment–from the break room to the conference room. “You know, we gotta get these sales up, motivate people to buy, et cetera” or “That vending machine has everything you could want: vegetable chips, soda, M&Ms, et cetera.” Don said it so much that Saleem was starting to unconsciously brandish it in his own vocabulary. Which brought no end of delight to Pam, his plump, khaki-adorned wife, as Saleem said that, yes, he would enjoy ketchup, mustard, et cetera on his burger.
Pam beamed, “You got it,” and slathered the erstwhile bare patty in condiments galore.
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Stevenson.”
“Oh Saleem, you’re too polite. Just call me Pam.”
Saleem obliged with a smile, adding a thumbs up to assure he was amenable to being uncouth.
Pam winked and offered, “Let me introduce you to some of my students. I always invite the seniors to our little Independence Day cookout. Well, the ones that tolerate me outside of class anyway!”
As Pam led Saleem over to a group of especially pale, freckled people, Don was getting noticeably handsy with the office’s administrative assistant, Rochelle, a girl Saleem imagined to be in her late twenties and whom he had been trying to suppress feelings for ever since he had started at ProZaeic almost eight months ago. They had only had very brief exchanges, all mostly pertaining to her love of Istanbul and how she couldn’t understand how he–a boy from Turkey–had never been, while she–a country bumpkin from Memphis–had studied abroad there for a semester while majoring in Islamic Studies, which is why, she argued, she was currently working as an administrative assistant. Saleem wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but all he wanted to tell her was that he thought she was doing just fine. He wanted to tell her that now, too, but Don was awfully busy monopolizing her time. And, at the moment, his, too, was being drained by an overly earnest girl named Devin, blue-eyed and too thin for his taste, telling him all about how she was planning to visit Budapest soon and was that anywhere near his village in Turkey? Saleem shook his head, “Not exactly.” Could Americans really be this dumb? he found himself wondering inwardly–then caught himself feeling this glimmer of contempt and felt immediately guilty. It wasn’t their fault that education was so little regarded, respected or tended to. They were products of their government, one that forced you to have rich parents if you wanted access to a European-level curriculum. No, you must put these thoughts of superiority out of your head, Saleem reminded himself, opting instead to shift the conversation to something Devin and her ilk must surely be experts in: hamburgers. The true American crack cocaine that never was more desirable than on July 4th. And so it was thus that, as Saleem sunk his teeth into the remains of his burger, he asked in an offhanded manner, “So when did hamburgers become such a thing in the U.S.?”
Expecting one of them to instantly chime in with an accurate and succinct origin story, Devin blinked absently and looked over at Mickey, one of the pastier members of the bunch, with a faint mullet to add to his Ohio cachet. Mickey shrugged, “Dunno, when McDonald’s opened. Think that was in the 70s.” Another girl next to him, Shannon, who had an extremely prominent cameltoe thanks to her Spandex shorts, countered, “I think we all started liking them when Marilyn Monroe was photographed at a drive-in eating one.”
Later, back at his apartment, where he chose to enjoy the fireworks alone and from the vantage point of his window (where many a child was also setting off bottle rockets to heighten the depressive feel of it all), Saleem took the time to lovingly masturbate to Rochelle in her bright turquoise skirt and white tank top featuring an American flag on it before going to his computer and investigating the derivation of the U.S. passion for circular, compacted meat.
As it turned out, Saleem soon learned, the first incarnation stemmed from mincing beef procured (read: ripped) from a Hamburg cow and combining it with salt, pepper, garlic and onions then formed into that odious word: patties. At first, the “Hamburg steak,” as it was billed, was rather expensive as a result of its high quality (hard to envision in the present epoch, to be sure). When German immigrants made their way to major cities in the states (meaning New York), the restaurants they opened included this item as one of the priciest food options. Subsequently, the advent of the Industrial Revolution in resource-rich areas hit hard, and factory workers were served these “steaks” from food carts for the purpose of faster consumption that would promote shorter breaks. Faster to eat, however, didn’t mean easier or more efficient. Hence, one food vendor was enterprising enough to slap the meat between two pieces of bread and call it a Hamburg sandwich.
As Saleem finished his research, he came to the vague conclusion that maybe Americans knew nothing about themselves because every part of them comes from somewhere else. His very existence on the continent at this precise second was only further proof of that. Its open arms to all–at least, when showcasing the best version of itself–is what made them all so cavalier–aloof, ultimately–about investigating the most basic stereotypes about themselves. They didn’t need to know. They were who they were. And that was a melange of every other culture. Like Madonna, they knew how to cull and graft from all the best elements of others and turn it into something distinctly their own. Authentically American.