Essay | Place and Patriots

I'm going to attempt to do something that I hope is not taken the wrong way. But with the question of patriotism bouncing around the conversation of our current event, it's hard for me to not try and express it. This is an attempt to explain the function and place of patriotism for the rest of us -- that is, those of us for whom it's not an automatic given. It's not a criticism, a rebuke, or even denial. Just a description and a hope to convey how people like me have come to grapple with the idea since we were little kids.

My early childhood was marked by trips abroad: Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Canada, London and more. My dad worked for an airline and so we were a band of jet-setting travelers. Early on, I understood that the world was big, varied and unpredictable. I knew that much more extended beyond the playground.

America was just the place I lived. I didn't know much about the US in comparison to everywhere else I had been. I saw the nations of the world through this ideal equal-but-different light: All nations were equal in wealth, power, influence and quality. Everywhere was just a place.'

Sometime in maybe the 5th grade, at a dining table in Saudi Arabia, I asked my parents what the most powerful country in the world was. I was shocked to find out that it was America. When I thought about it, yeah, it made sense. They had more TV channels. But what shocked me was that of all the countries on this moist ball of dirt, I was lucky enough to be born into the richest and strongest one. I mean, what are the odds of that? I pumped my fist into the air as soon as I was alone.

I think at that moment, in that naive innocence in the sweltering heat of the middle east, was me at my most patriotic. As the years go by, I settled back in to thinking of America as a (really cool) place and less of an identity. I don't think it's uncommon. I don't think I'm alone. I think there's a huge swath of America that becomes apathetic to our country, enjoying the people and the culture, but not one to wave the stars & stripes.

Particularly as a person of color. You feel farther apart from the idea of America because you've accepted your outsider role. Few people on TV look like you. You are not catered to. You are outside of the mainstream, an observant inhabitant. Living in America is a convenience: It's where all your friends are, it's where you keep your stuff, and there is no war in the streets. The only reason you call yourself "Asian American" or some other census term is because you don't feel authentic enough to be merely Asian.

So, patriotism isn't all that high on my list. I'm not some flag burning, America-hatin', communist sympathizer, it's just that nothing has ever indicated to me that this was my country other than a permanent address. The Philippines wasn't my country either - I felt like one of the many immigrant sons and daughters, living in limbo. It's hard to convey to some people, who take this as being ungrateful, or ashamed, or worse, traitorous. But it's really a matter of assigning credit -- the things I love about living here, I attribute to people, or culture, or ideas. Not the nebulous concept of America, the thing to which we owe our loyalty for housing these people, this culture, or these ideas.

As much as we live here and contribute to the society, there is always that little inkling in the back of our head that tells us that we can never truly feel totally part of this national identity. The praising of so-called "small town values" and the emphasis put on cowboys and ranchers and farmers and fisherman, on lighter skin and blonde hair, it's fine, but it doesn't resonate with me or my values at all. 

Michelle Obama made a gaffe early in the presidential campaign. She said, "This is the first time in my adult life that I have been really proud of my country." Naturally, the crowd jumped on her for this, and she had to issue a statment to clarify, something about the difference between "proud" and "really proud." But for me, I didn't see what the big deal was. It was par for the course as I understood the world. If anything, I felt like I could really connect to them more, because I thought of her as someone with doubt and consequence. It felt like an important asset, the same way that questioning your faith does not make you a poor believer, but perhaps a stronger one in the end.

It became apparent to me that the expected behavior of this country is ceaseless unconditional devotion. Even indifference is villainous. The TV people, the punditry and the watch dogs and the critics, they want you to treat America like a religion. The idea that hanging a flag from your car is tacky is an offense. I don't even like Philippine flag baseball hats.

When Reverend Jeremiah Wright made world news for quoting "God damn America" in a sermon, the Democrats were forced to play up their patriotism until they shit bald eagle eggs. That's all well and good, but again, I couldn't see what all the hullaballoo was about. Not that I agreed with Wright -- but I didn't disagree either. I did not presume to know whether America was ultimately good and evil, but I knew that reasonable people can and have argued both judgments, and the answer really comes down to what one values more. I knew that his comments would be cause for concern, but I didn't think people would label it as "hate speech." It was no different than any other speaker at a radical progressive conference held every month at some major university. It wasn't something I wouldn't have heard at, say, the Student of Color Conference. It was pretty standard civil disobedience speech stuff.

The right wing and the hardcore patriots tend to paint the angry liberal as a few steps away from terrorist, which has never rung true to me. Fox News would go to a liberal anti-war rally in Denver and say they were on the verge of rioting. Bill O'Reilly would go to a liberal news conference and say it was full of dangerous fringe lunatics just because some guy with an afro and a zine says America is a white supremacist country.

Who's right isn't the question, but we rarely get taught about that seedy underbelly of American history, only when necessary, and with great distancing, as with slavery and segregation. When you really get into these things that have been kept from you in history class, it makes it harder to move beyond place and into patriotism. Because let's face it - American history itself is pretty offensive. The wars, the colonialism, the neocolonialism, the exploitation, the oppression and the global consequences of all of this -- it's hard to rally for lady liberty. The best that I could do was to be indifferent to patriotism.

There are few things that inspire me with warmth for the United States. Our guaranteed rights as citizens, the cutting edge modernity, the hot dogs. Then there's this: On August 28, 2009, Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech to over 80,000 Americans in Denver, Colorado. Millions more watched at home. With this audience, he said:

That's the promise of America - the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper.
... it is that American spirit - that American promise - that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

It sounds like a cool place. It sounds like somewhere I'd want to live.