Embracing heritage part of Olympic experience

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Usain Bolt might have Jamaican-Americans doing the Lightning Bolt dance with him if he wins gold.

Every four years, around this time, a different type of patriotism overwhelms me. After waving the flag and grilling hot dogs on July 4, I become enthralled in the Summer Olympics and embrace the half of my heritage that not many get to see. It's the part of me that originated in an island breeze in the Caribbean nation of Jamaica.

As a Caribbean-American, my hyphenated self is on full display during the Games. When my Jamaica is presented in the Opening Ceremony, my speech becomes peppered with patois, a native tongue of the island; I crave rice and peas; and the black, gold and green colors of the Jamaican flag flow fervently through my veins.

It's amazing to me that, although I represent for my family's heritage and country of origin with pride now, there was a time in America's history when this was frowned upon.

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Athletes such as Natasha Hastings, who is of Jamaican descent, will have Jamaican-Americans cheering her on.

A hyphenated American once stood for an immigrant of divided loyalty. From small neighborhoods to the White House, the term "hyphenated American" was deemed derogatory and the group was looked at as traitors. A New York Times article from 1915 quoted former President Theodore Roosevelt as saying, "The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities. …There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else."

Some people still dislike hyphenation because they think it signals separation and implies you're not a true American. However, being from a mix of different origins is as American as it gets. Most of us are from somewhere else, just rocking out under the red, white and blue. This is even more apparent during the Olympics.

Seeing nations of the world compete against one another makes all of us more aware that we are German-American, Irish-American, Asian-American -- you fill in the blank. All Americans (except Native Americans) are hyphenated. It's up to each of us to decide how much we want to embrace our hyphen.

My grandmother emigrated from Jamaica when she was 18. As a child, she would tell me stories of the wealth and land she had on the island. She reveled in the fact that racism was an issue she never dealt with in Jamaica -- and that she didn't pass that burden down to her children. In turn, I'm very accepting of people from all walks of life.

As a Caribbean-American, my sense of pride is also rooted in the fact that I can actually trace my lineage beyond American slavery. Many African-Americans can't do this because of slavery, which broke up black families when individual members were sold and their last names changed. I'm fortunate to even know my country of origin, which is another reason why I show it love during the Olympics. I'm simultaneously rooting for the Jamaican and the American teams.

I feel an overwhelming sense of pride when I see the black, gold and green of my Caribbean nation cross the finish line, especially in the sprint events, where four of the top five fastest times in the men's 100-meter dash are held by Jamaicans. At the top of that list is the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, who probably will whip out his signature Lightning Bolt dance after winning gold in London. I'll be in front of my television doing the same.

There's also a connection to American athletes such as Natasha Hastings, who is of Jamaican descent but competes for the United States in the 400 meters. When I see her run, I feel a kinship with her or, as some Jamaicans would say, "I and I are one people."

Seeing countries from around the world compete in the Olympic Summer Games reminds us that America isn't so much a melting pot as a salad bowl, with each ingredient maintaining its uniqueness and helping to create a more complete dish. At its core, America is a country started by ragtag groups of rebels looking for a chance to do things differently.

So go ahead, do something different. Cheer for your country of origin. It's fun -- and it's your right as an American.

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