Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

The Fourth of July.

American turned 233 yesterday to the crashing sound of fireworks and the spit and sizzle of the grill. People gathered in parking lots to watch the shows, waved American flags, jumped in the pool, shared potato and pasta salads, and spent time with families. Some did, at least.

I felt very much like an outsider last night. I took the boyfriend out to a Japanese sushi and hibachi restaurant, gave several forced laughs at our very bored hibachi chef and had patience with our newly hired, apologetic server. Notwithstanding, we had a lovely time, especially watching one of the restaurant employees run through the place with a motorcycle helmet on and watching the hibachi chef lose control of the fire show and send an eight-inch tongue of flame licking towards my wine glass.

We left the restaurant as the fireworks began. The parking lots everywhere were crammed with people watching and oohing, with children sitting cross-legged on top of vans, the Sonny's Bar-B-Que sign blazing light, the McDonald's vying for attention with an inflatable sign, and nothing but a fleet of cars, concrete, and occasional waving flags to be seen for miles.

Looking around at this dead landscape, I could not help thinking that America has a lot to learn.

What is patriotism? What do people love when they say that they love their country? What do they support more than anything? What separates America from Orwell's Oceanea, in which the proletariat have a dull kind of patriotism that can be summoned and used whenever Big Brother finds it useful?

What is a country?

It cannot just be land. Laws, government, cultures, and other trappings are also useless without the people for whom they exist. A country without its people is nothing, which means that if there is anything worth fighting for, it is the population of your country. The mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, annoying cousins, irritating coworkers, incompetent bosses, homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts, the poor and the excruciatingly poor, the Buddhists, the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus, the agnostics, the atheists, the Wiccans, the Native Americans, the rich socialites, the murderers, the robbers, the uneducated, the highly educated, the ignorant, and the brilliant: those people are your country. All of them and more.

Are you proud of them? Would you fight for them? Do you think about them, all of them, when you wave your flag and sing for America the Beautiful? Would you do your best to help your fellow man before lining your own pockets? Would you rather have money in the bank or live in a country in which every single person has the right to excellent health? Do you know all your country's flaws, and do you ignore them or do you want to fix them? Do you listen to other human beings or do you just believe that if everyone thought like you, the whole world would be better off? Do you think that people in other, poorer, more ignorant walks of life have the right to your help so that they can be the best people they can be?

Are you truly patriotic or do you only love what this system in which you live can do for you?

Looking around that night, I saw people who were convinced of their self-importance. I saw pride in a hollow shell, hastily covered over by a flag. I saw people who cared about nothing more than to eke out their own lives without wanting to venture outside their horizons or to make their own marks on the world. I felt utter detachment and incredible pity for those people that night.

I never pledged my allegiance to the German flag, not once in four different kindergartens and four years of Grundschule--elementary school. I barely knew the national anthem. Yet we were proud of our culture--our history, our music, our writers, our operas, our art, our architecture, our food, our mistakes, our parks, our mountains, our forests, our folktales, our discoveries, and our scientists. I never had to recite a pledge every morning to restate, again and again and again and again, that I promised to devote myself to my country. Yet I loved it so much I cried nightly for weeks when I was brought to America. I missed it deeply, every part of it.

My sister left America again to live in Germany with my father. She misses very, very different things about this country.

Germany, she says, has no Taco Bell, no Victoria's Secret, no Doritos, no Kraft macaroni and cheese, and no Ramen noodles. Every time we go over there, we have to bring her some Taco Bell taco mix, cheese sauce powder, Ramen noodle seasoning, chips, and a bra or two.

Every time I come back from Germany, I step off the plane bearing opera tickets, train tickets, photographs, and restaurant cards to paste into a diary. I bring circles of wooden tracery I carved at my grandfather's for my mother, I bring countless German books, and I stow several bottles of Riesling into my checked luggage.

I know very well which country has the more beautiful, seasoned culture.

Yet America has the advantage of being a new country. It has not existed to make mistakes and learn for a thousand years. It has had two hundred and thirty-three. America is growing every which way; it's like a little runt of a kitten with a head too big for its body. And, in its own stumbling way, it is still very, very lovable.

I should just like to see America admit that it has much to learn and much to gain from other countries; that we are not the best--that no one is--that our worth is measured in the worth of our people, and that we have an exceptional amount of potential.

Think of it as a new translation of "independence".