“But are you proud to be an American?,” she smirked, a fellow expatriate in a foreign land. It was July 4th, and I was far from home. While I consider myself a true citizen of the world, there’s no denying there’s a place that made me.
I have spent the past five Fourth of Julys abroad. The majority of the people I have met in my years of travel understand that like most, I have a loving, loyal, and complicated relationship with my country. To others, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend a place I’m simultaneously deeply critical of and forever indebted and tied to, like a beloved family member that struggles to get it together. Occasionally, there are even a few who are truly unpleasant, who want me to apologize for my passport, who want me to pay for the politics they don’t agree with. Every so often I encounter that same attitude from fellow US citizens who don’t offer their home country the same sympathies they offer those they travel to.
“But are you proud to be an American?” I knew exactly what that snarky question implied.
Am I proud that we’ve allowed a group of minority extremists to so frequently poison the country’s politics with homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and garden variety hate? Am I proud of the consumerism that appears to be the national religion? Am I proud of our history as one of the planet’s most prolific bullies? Am I proud that we are the only developed nation in the world without universal healthcare or a single legally required paid vacation day? Am I proud of our frothing-at-the-mouth gun obsession? Of our media’s portrayal of the rest of the world as outsiders to be feared? No. I am not. And I vote, I write (okay, I email) my representatives and I donate to the politicians and charities I believe will elevate us beyond that.
It’s true — we’ve got issues. Yet the stereotypes that I so often encounter around the world simply don’t represent the United States I love. This year, on a trip to New York, I wiped away tears as I reread the inscription that sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty, the icon that welcomed so many generations of immigrants to their new homeland.
Give me your tired,
Your huddled masses,
Yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless,
Tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
So am I proud to be an American? Hell yes. I’m proud of the America where we root for the underdog, where we love a comeback story, where we embrace the bizarre, where ambition runs as thick as blood. The America where we tell each other — loudly — how passionately we believe in our causes, diverse as they may be. Where we fiercely protect the right of our opponents to freely speak their minds. The America where it’s more about what you’ve done than where you come from. Where we never lose the opportunity to grow and reinvent ourselves. Where we embrace change and learn from our mistakes. Where we innovate and create. Where we smile at strangers and ask each other how we’re doin’. The America where we pause to dust each other off after great tragedy. This is the America I love.
Because no matter how long I’m gone, no matter how many faults I find, something inside me lights up when I shuffle through a US airport, and after a flurry of lines and passport checks and stoic immigration officers, I hear those magical words — “Welcome home.”