Thursday, May 9, 2013

Becoming American

Last year on Patriot’s Day, I awoke on a couch in Boston, on a trip to say one last goodbye to Bostonian friends and a city we had come to adore over our many visits.  

This year was different.  I awoke at five-something in my own bed in Zimbabwe, groggy as my husband walked by and whispered to me that there had been a bombing, something about a marathon, and how our power had just cut out.  He walked away to the bathroom while I sat up in sudden panic. Half-way awake I rushed to the television, clicked it on and waited.  First there was nothing. Then a sudden power surge awoke our screen for a prompt few seconds. As the television rebooted, a CNN correspondent could be heard talking about a bombing as a map on the screen zoomed in toward the East Coast of the US. Then the power was out again. “Seriously?!” I had yelled as everything went dark.

And then I did what any panicked, newly woken idiot who had just come from living in the paranoia of New York City post 9/11 would do.  

I immediately called our American friends, lump in my throat, as a ridiculous amount of panic rose through me.  I pictured friends back home in Manhattan and my imagination ran wild as the phone rang. “Hi, Dan.” I had said.  “The US just had a terrorist attack. (sniff) Do you guys have power? (sniff sniff) Can you please just make sure New (sniff) York (sniff) City is okaaaay?!” As I hung up the phone to await a call back, I paced the floor. Kurt returned to laugh at me when he found out I had just made the equivalent of a drunk phone call in my exhaustedly illogical stupor.

Sorry, Dan and Julie. Won’t happen again, ahem…

The tragedies surrounding Patriot's Day, like so many other tragedies over the past year, deserve our attention for a number of reasons. They remind us of things.  Important things.  And though I won't mention most of them here, they all have reminded me of something that is actually never far from my consciousness living in a place like Africa. 

I am American.

I admit I get uncomfortable with the concept of patriotism when it reflects a "we're better than you" mentality.  It can easily come off as immature and sort of weird when we all have the same maker. So I don't use the patriot label often.  This is a nice way of saying there have been times I have admitted I’m American like someone sitting in an AA meeting.  Yet this is ironic because I absolutely love the ideals of our country and the reasons so many like myself are proud to participate in it.  It's pretty much just when I'm confronted with the idiocy of Jersey Shore and fried butter that I start to slide down in my chair.

My husband's school teaches children from over 65 countries.  Many are from embassies or NGOs, and have moved a number of times in their short little lives because of their parents' careers. These children are often well cultured, amazing at making friends, and roll with the punches well.  But there is one thing that makes me incredibly sad about most of them.  Ask them where they're from.  They will pause, stammer, hesitate and then give a complicated answer that usually involves where their parents were born and something about their passports. The ex-pat lifestyle is a unique one.

My child is technically American, though already he has spent over a quarter of his life in a different country.  This is a nice way of saying that his accent is changing and already he knows which plant in the yard heals sick chickens. And though we are trying to embrace all that our new continent has to offer (we ate cooked flowers for dinner last night- amazing!) I am conscious that the longer we are out of the country, the harder it will be for Jonas to understand important things like Weezer, 30 Rock, and jello salad.

I could go on and on, about homesickness and why I can't find chocolate chips for the life of me in this country, about how I can't believe I'm missing the last season of The Office and how for one day I would like to walk into my bathroom to find a shower instead of a bathtub.  Oh, and a cheesecake.  For the love of God, can someone please send me a piece of cheesecake?  But that's not my point. I did not move to Africa to reproduce America.  I adore Africa, as is, pros, and cons, and pros that look like cons, and cons that look like pros, and every other combination possible. Love it.

But anyone who travels knows. It's a strange phenomenon that happens when you suddenly become the outsider.  Never have I felt as American as when I'm not living in it. The stark contrast of my perspective, born out of affluent safety and a logical love for all things contained within a People magazine, compared to native Africans of every color and economy, reminds me of my roots over and over.

I was reminded as I spent Thanksgiving watching others work while I sat and ate squash-in-place-of-pumpkin pie. I was reminded as we caught bits of the Superbowl at 4 am while others slept around us. I am reminded whenever it becomes 60 degrees and I am looking for a non-existent heating thermostat.  I am reminded whenever it becomes 80 degrees and I am looking for a non-existent air conditioning knob. I am reminded whenever I pull my hair out over power outages while those in the rural areas around us are amazed at the hours we do have this magically beautiful thing called electricity.

I learn new and wonderful things every day.  My perspective shifts and I slowly evolve. But apparently what I am learning most is actually about where I have come from.  It is slowly becoming clear; for better and worse, I will always be an American, wherever I go.