On being American

            You’d think I’d have a stock answer by now.  It is a pretty straightforward question, and people ask it all the time.  It is a standard of small talk, in fact.  But, every time I hear it, I struggle, trying to figure out an answer that is truthful without being way too much information.

            “Where are you from?”

            It is a very good question.  I’ll get back to you when I have an answer.  I grew up in Massachusetts, except for when I didn’t live there.  I lived in Philadelphia longer than Washington, D.C., Chapel Hill, or Charlottesville, but I haven’t lived in any of those places in years, and none of my stints were that long.  We have moved during all three of my pregnancies, and two of those have been international moves.  My latest domicile was London, but I think we can safely say I am not from there.

            Nowadays, here in Los Angeles, I sort of stutter and respond, “The East Coast.”  It’s vague, but it gets the job done.

            I long for a place of permanency, but I may never get one.  I wish for geographic rootedness, but it may never happen.  I will probably go a long time before I develop a place-based identity.

            The best I can say is that I am an American.  And, although it is fashionable to be self-denigrating about that fact, I am not.  I am proud to be American. 

            Yes, Americans use too many resources, and there are plenty of Americans who care nothing for the environmental flotsam they leave in their wake.  But I am proud to be among the others, the ones who are working to clean up our act.  The recyclers, the bikers, the pedestrians, the non-drier-clothes-hangers, the open-windows-instead-of-air-conditioners, the vegetarians, the Freecyclers.  I am not all of those things (anyone want to guess which ones?), but I am proud to be an American alongside them and to strive to be better.

            Yes, Americans were responsible for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and Americans will be responsible for more such atrocities as long as there are people who see our strength as a license to behave however we want.  But, there are other Americans working to reveal the abuses and prevent their reoccurrence.   I wish I were as good an American as they are.

            Yes, there are Americans who discriminate against homosexuals, who hate people because of their skin color, and who preach the word of God while living a life that would have made their Savior weep.  But there are others who stand up to them, who fight for the rights of people they do not know, who live lives of service and humility.  I hope to find a way to live a life like theirs.

            And, so, this Fourth of July, I will not be hiding.  I will be proudly wearing my favorite Fourth t-shirt, the one that says “Celebrate Freedom: Read a Banned Book.”  I will be spending time with my children, working to raise them to be the kinds of Americans I so admire.

            I am an American in the tradition of Jack Kerouac or Gertrude Stein.  I am on the road, I am shuffled from one place to another.  But, I look at my shelf of books, at Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Octavia Butler, and all my other loves.  And I am proud to celebrate that part of my nationality, even as I know how much work we all have left to do every single day.

            Some Americans disgust me, but others?  They rock my world.

17 responses to “On being American

  1. Very inspiring.

    And because I’m your first commenter of the day–I get the first guess!

    You are not a biker (at least currently because you are pregnant and have young kids)

    And you NEED an A.C.!! (Again, pregnant with young kids!)

    I am fairly certain that you are not a vegetarian either!

    (How did I do?) 🙂

  2. Beautifully written. I’m proud to be an American too. (And I wish I had a t-shirt like that…very cool.)

    And while I can always say “I grew up in Michigan, my family is in Michigan”…I never know exactly what to say when someone asks where I’m from, either. The funny thing is, when you’re in the military, everyone is from somewhere else and has a dilemma when answering that question as well. 🙂

  3. Well said. I’m known to hang my head in shame over America more often than holding it proudly but, at the end of the day, I’m convicted by the realization that even the opportunity to do so is a freedom given me by America – not to mention everything else that makes me me. So, as with family members, I’m trying to take the good with the bad.

    I have always longed for a ‘home.’ I’ve come to see certain people as “home” instead, but do wish for a place to go with them…

  4. It’s so nice to see someone being patriotic without being corny. Nat (Ben’s dad) is always going on and on and on and on about Stupid Americans (he’s not a citizen) and I’ve heard many other people have the same sort of attitude.

    Happy July 4, Em. To you and all of yours.

  5. The other day, I sputtered through an answer when Girl asked me “America’s a good country, right?” My answer was definitely affirmative, but what you’ve written here explains almost exactly how I feel about being an American these days.

    Eloquent, and patriotic. Patrick Henry, et al, would be proud.

  6. some PEOPLE disgust me. Others? rock my world.

  7. Way to go Emily. We live in the best country in the world!

  8. I often feel the same way about being American. Feeling extremely proud but with long bouts of disdain. But when I’m traveling abroad? I have definitely been known to cop out and say I’m Canadian. It’s sometimes easier than dealing with the hateful looks and the heated political discussions that usually follows the words, “I’m American”.

  9. Amen. Living in the UK I think it’s very difficult to explain what “sort” of American I am. You have managed to do this so well, surprise, surprise. From now on I’ll just say, “I’m the kind of American that Emily is.” I think that will really clear it up.

  10. For what it’s worth, I’ve never been able to answer “where are you from,” not even to myself. After years of experience testing out various answers I’ve found a wonderful solution to be “I went to high school in [insert town or state]. It makes your point that it’s complicated without saying so, says you don’t want to say more without saying so, and gives people the concrete answer they are looking for because they have that stupid human need to label people based on where they are from.

    Just a thought. You might want to try it with a couple of strangers next chance you get and see what happens. Nothing to lose.

  11. What a fantastic post! I was thinking about this a lot the last couple of days…the fact I am VERY proud to be an American despite the fact sometimes we walk around as though we should be ashamed. As you noted, there is a LOT wrong about our country but every 4th of July (and Memorial Day) I find myself overwhelmed by my patriotic streak…

  12. This was wonderful and felt like you were inside my brain. Where can I get one of those t-shirts?

  13. Terrific post!

    First, why is it important to know where we are from? I know, it’s small talk. It’s something to talk about. But I’m not into small talk. To me where we are NOW is more important. And WHO we are.

    And about being American? Well, there are a lot of bad people out there, but there are bad people all over the world. (I liked what Flutter had to say.) There are good people here (and all over the world.) You are right about the stupid things some Americans do. But I’ll take this country any day. Not many days pass when I don’t think about how lucky I was to be “from America.” I didn’t pick it. It just happened. It’s a blessing.

  14. It can be difficult being an American overseas on occasion, but I am what I am and make no bones about it.

  15. Loved this. I’ve been MIA – it’s nice to be back in the groove and reading you. Thanks.

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