Thursday, January 3, 2008

Proud to be an American

This morning on NPR they interviewed three people along Highway 10, the very most eastern and southern portions of it, asking them about the upcoming presidential race and which candidates had issues that spoke to them. And then they were asked whether they believed they were leaving their children with a country that was better than when they had inherited it from their parents. One man from Jacksonville, FL said that although these times seemed pessimistic, he was proud to be an American and therefore believed that he would leave his children with the state of the nation better than when he had inherited it from his parents.

And I was struck both by his naive sense of optimism and his patriotism. Because I don't know what he meant when he said he was proud to be an American.

So here I am, asking one of those obvious questions: What does it mean to say you are proud to be an American?

I am asking this literally--in other words, I'd be interested in hearing various opinions on this. And for those of you who do not feel or may have never felt national pride, why?

Also, for any readers of this blog not from the U.S. (or for those of you who don't identify as U.S. citizens), what does national pride mean to you?

I must confess that I am not someone who readily or easily takes on group identities. I've never really been a joiner or a fan. The sports I played in high school and which I continue to play are largely individual ones: tennis, badminton, golf, running. Aside from rooting for my High School football and basketball teams, I've never really cheered for a sports team or followed a particular sport (aside from golf, and again, it's individual players I watch and I don't know outside of Tiger whether I truly root for anyone). I'm spending a lot of time on sports because I think that there is a link between patriotism and sports fandom. Each seems predicated on wearing colors and symbols of your team--and supporting that team in good times and bad. There are songs and uniforms and anthems and a "home" base. Is my lack of sports fandom related to my lack of patriotism?

I really am not a patriotic person--or at least not in the same sense as the Jacksonville man. I don't tell people that I'm proud to be an American (at least not without irony); the history of the U.S. is too fraught for me in many ways. For every national achievement there is a darker underbelly. Western expansion and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad? Yes, it opened up the continent and literally and symbolically united East and West coasts of the U.S. It also displaced several American Indian tribes and the Chinese men, whose labor was necessary for the Western portion to be built, were summarily abandoned in Utah, not even able to gain passage on the trains whose tracks they had laid (since the trains were not open for Chinese to ride in). And of course, if you look at that photo at Promontory Point Utah, the silver spike ceremony, you will see Irish laborers and Railroad barons but no Chinese men.

And yet, I also believe that the fact that I (and many others) can point to the many flaws and fallacies of the U.S. is, perhaps, the moment when I do feel the strongest connection to a national identity. I do know that the time I felt the most pride in calling myself an American came during an Asian American studies class that I took in college. The professor, a visiting scholar from UCLA who self-identified as hapa, in his case, half Japanese and half African American, on the first day of class read a conference paper he had written about the Japanese American internment. And as I listened to him I started to get so angry about the suspension of constitutional rights and the racism that Japanese Americans had faced during World War II. And when he was finished he turned to us and said that he was proud to be an American. Because he could read a paper to us criticizing a major governmental policy. Because as a hapa man he could teach us this history at a major U.S. university. Because in the U.S. we have the freedom to speak truth to power, to criticize our government when they are failing us, and to vote our conscious (even though the cynical part of me wonders what good it often does if we keep repeating our mistakes or the votes don't get counted).

It is a moment I'll always remember, and on my less cynical days, I do like to think that this freedom--to voice dissent--makes me proud to be an American.

4 comments:

Jason Clinkscales said...

Jennifer, this post made me think of any moment that I may have felt American pride and in all honesty, I can't think of any at the top of my head. I think part of this has to do with where I'm from, NYC. Fair or not, love it or hate it (and I've been walking the line for years) New York City is as close to a city-state as we may see in American society. I think because of the vast size and collections of various backgrounds, coming up, it was hard for me to envision what the rest of the nation was like because from what I heard, it was far different from my hometown.

However, you bring up the sports side and of course, it made me think a little deeper. Most folks who have allegiances to a team tend to have a certain civic pride in their town, city or region. While I do have the love/hate relationship with my own city, I have always been intrigued by other places outside of New York, despite what I heard or read about. I would listen to people talk about their native lands or their original hometowns and I have always wanted to see for myself. Much of my passion for sports comes from the fact that these athletes and fans aren't all from my neighborhood and as I gotten older and discovered how people connect with sports, it has brought out much more of a desire to see the rest of the country and how other people continue to connect to sports and their homes. I was fortunate enough to have experienced so many experiences with the Boston area over the last eight years, but I have also been up and down the East Coast, California and Las Vegas to find out such. Though I'm young, I've learned plenty and continue to do so.

So to explain myself (finally), outside of having the right to vote freely, express my opinions and appreciate the sacrifices of my family (Mom marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - that's another post in itself), I never thought much about how proud I am to be an American. However, I want to experience the rest of this country before I can say that. I have a strong desire to see every city and town possible. I think despite so many differences in race, religion, politics and habitat, we all have much more in common than we lend ourselves to believe, but I want to see for myself.

Jennifer said...

Jason,
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I like the connection you made between sports teams and regions--because you are right, you identify with a team usually because you have a connection with the city in which that team resides. So fandom and region/tribalism seems to be an inter-connected phenomenon.

I also think that, like you, my primary affiliation is region--and it may be due to a sense of oppositional identity because here in the South I find that I identify most strongly with being a Californian--even though I haven't been a California resident since 1995. And I also think (the Governator not withstanding) that I tend to have a strong sense of "California" pride and to say that I'm proud to be from California, even though the reality is that the housing market there has made it impossible for anyone of middle-income to buy a home in the Bay Area/Los Angeles, there are seriously problems with traffic/pollution, and there are other social problems as well.

But being outside of CA I feel that sense of identity and nostalgia and pride. I wonder if I lived outside the US if I would feel a strong identification and pride in being American?

pronetolaughter said...

I'm a bit of a "it is what it is" person. That is, the type who will say of a friend "oh, that's just how she is". Anyhow, I tend to deal with the US like that too. Americanness is ingrained deep in me---I couldn't and wouldn't change it. So a tag on my blog is "America My America" but I tend to use that tag for posts about the flaws and craziness of America. And that's my attitude when I am outside the US too.

Anyhow, I'd say my moments of American pride are most tied to driving across the country. Traversing the land gave me the feeling "this is my territory". And it was very much about the land---not the people, or any quaint "Americanness", because I stuck to freeways and stayed at chain hotels. But my movement through the land claimed it for me.

My relationship with California is a longer story, which I'm not telling to keep pseudonymity. I was raised to be a California chauvinist, by refugees from the East Coast, but left when I was 17. Sometimes I wonder if I am still a Californian.

Jennifer said...

pronetolaughter,
Thanks for reminding us about the natural landscape. The environment/ nature is something I think we forget a lot of times or that we relegate to being something that happens only in rural/uninhabited places. I was struck by this when I read an Eco-Critic's blog about challenging ourselves to pay more attention to our natural habitat, regardless of where we lived (city vs. country) and to see if we could give someone directions to our house without relying on any man-made directionals/guides (you know things like, "you'll pass a tall maple that is beginning to bud, take a left after you pass by the maple and you'll come to a patch of forsythia..."

Anyhow, the landscape around us, whether in terms of "nature" or manmade sites (like the golden gate bridge, the statue of liberty) do seem to be markers of nationality and another way to identify as American through a connection to those sites.