What is it like being an American overseas especially on this historical of all American historical days the Fourth of July?
This is not about what I miss—like all those outdoor, backyard barbecues and cookouts with Mom’s potato salad and Dad’s charbroiled burgers or watching the skies explode in star-spangled bursts of red, white and blue. Sure, I miss all of those things and more and who wouldn’t when you have been away from home for as long as I have.
What I have discovered about living outside of the land of the free and the home of the brave is that I am more of American now than I was when I lived back home.
First of all, I have never been what you would call a flag waver. I mean, before I decided to come overseas in 1989 and spend the past 19 years teaching English, I was at best moderately patriotic. I pledged allegiance to the flag and raised my right hand to protect and defend the United States of America serving my country honorably in peacetime in the United States Air Force from 1976-1980 and a year in the Air National Guard 1982-1983. I don’t know if you would call this patriotic or not, but if I hear the Air Force Hymn or see a fighter streaking across the sky I still get goose bumps.
And I suppose when I feel that swelling in my chest when I’ve heard our national anthem being played at sporting events, especially in the Olympics or in Korea in 2002 before the US-Portugal World Cup Match that’s also patriotic. And after having grown up with our race to the moon in the 60s, to this day I still get goose bumps when I watch the Space Shuttle lift off.
Then again, maybe it’s not really being patriotic but just caring a lot about my country. I weep when our nation loses a native son or daughter; I weep when I hear of a disaster striking whether it’s a hurricane in New Orleans, flooding along the Mississippi, or a tornado hitting Utica, Illinois—just a few miles from my home.
I am proud to be an American even though I might not show it all the time. What I am proud of is that my ancestors had the chance to come to America and have the chance for a better life and with each generation the chance to experience a little bit of that “American Dream.”
However, I am not proud for how our country has sometimes behaved in the past and the way it behaves now. I am embarrassed when I think about our dismal health care or the way minorities have been treated. I am saddened when I hear of another person being killed by a firearm or another person losing a job. I am disappointed when bureaucratic red tape that slows down everything like what happened when aid was slow in getting to New Orleans after Katrina struck.
I am angry when we let the lobbyists dictate policy. I am depressed at how slow we respond to atrocities being committed around the world when our government expects everyone else to follow our lead. And I get just as angry and upset when we send our men and women into harms way without first finding a diplomatic solution to whatever crisis has flared up around the globe.
Still no matter all these shortcomings I have faith in my country and our leaders. I just wish some of them would wake up, smell the coffee and get with the program.
In the past I might have been called a “bleeding heart liberal” but as I get older I am just an American who cares and loves my country a lot and wants what is right for all of us. Perhaps, as I once described my philosophy of life to a friend, “the older I get the more I become what I should have been all along” can also be applied here an tweaked a bit—“the older I get, the more American I become.”
You’re not going to find me sitting back and not saying a word when our government screws up; but at the same time I have faith in our elected leaders to make the right decisions. I still believe the system works but that we need to tune it up from time to time. It might take us awhile to get things right but I have confidence that we will. After all, we’ve only been around as a nation for 232 years.
When you live overseas for any length of time you might notice how some people see you as an extension of our government. To be sure, sometimes it hasn’t been easy being an American overseas especially if there is a war dragging on or some trade agreement being forced upon a country and as such we tend to carry a lot of cultural baggage with us wherever we go. Other than a few isolated incidents when I was serving in Panama 1976-1978 and some very large anti-American protests in Korea (including the ones going on now protesting US beef imports) I have never personally experienced any anti-American sentiment.
Likewise we tend to see things more clearly with our “view from a far” perspective. I don’t want to say that we love our country more or less than someone back home, but we are “ambassadors at large” when we are overseas. People see us and they see America (of course I am continually be mistaken for Canadian, English, Swedish, and one time Italian).
And when something back home happens or something happens overseas involving Americans or American policy we end up carrying more of that luggage.
It was surreal and painful to be overseas when 9-11 happened and in the months following. At first there was this overwhelming shock hearing what had happened and then in the days and weeks after, this unbelievable outpouring of sympathy and kindness from around the world. For a few weeks the whole world was with us and behind us.
But then policy issues got in the way and the sound of the war drums got louder and then suddenly Washington was telling people “either you are with us or against us.” If you would have been overseas at the time that’s probably not the kind of rhetoric you would have wanted choose. From there it was the Axis of Evil, Weapons of Mass Destruction and the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps it could have all played out so differently. Only history will tell us—five, ten, twenty years—down the road if what we did was right or if he messed up things pretty badly.
Foreign and other policies aside, we still must be doing something right judging from all the people lined up outside U.S. embassies in South Korea, Thailand, and other countries around the world wanting to go to the States for whatever reason. That’s one of the biggest ironies in South Korea—during the day there are long lines of people waiting to get in the U.S. Embassy; however, at night in recent weeks there have been thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets next to the embassy protesting against U.S. beef imports.
I know a lot of things back home are not good now—rising unemployment, fuel prices, inflation—and I know it’s got to hurt where it hurts most for average folks just trying to get by from one day to the next. I know if I were probably back home maybe I wouldn’t be so idealistic in my thinking and rhetoric. I am not the guy having to work two jobs to support my family or having to pay over 50.00 to fill up my gas tank. Maybe it’s easy for me to sit here in front of my computer in Korea and talk about how great America is because of what I miss and all the nostalgia I feel. And for that I apologize.
Yes, I am proud to be an American despite all our country’s shortcomings. Maybe we haven’t gotten a lot of things right and we could do much better but that doesn’t change how I feel. I am proud to call myself an American and I am proud of my country.
And that’s what this Fourth of July and every day mean to me.