Proud to be American

Must be an American

Sitting in JFK a few hours from boarding a plane to move to England. The last few days as I've packed up all my belongings, I couldn't stop a flood of emotions and thoughts about my American identity and who I'll be (and how I'll be seen) when I'm no longer living in America.

I visited England for the first time in December of 1992. I have a vivid memory of attending a holiday service in a beautiful old church in Cambridge. A woman was walking around near the worship area with a video camera. (In 1992 those were bulky and conspicuous) A lady sitting in front of me said in a disdainful tone, “she must be an American.” I immediately slid down in the pew, lowered my head and made sure to not speak so my accent wouldn't betray me. 

I’m not sure what message was delivered from the pulpit that day. But the message my 18-year-old self received then was that being an American was something to be embarrassed about…that my people were unrefined and out of place in such a dignified setting. Who knows if the woman in the church with the camera was American. And certainly that judge-y woman was not the best representative of the English... But I did carry that insecurity about how people (especially maybe educated, fancy people) see Americans. 

Fast forward 25 years, and I now find myself moving to England and married to a British citizen. The same one I visited 25 years ago. But that’s a different story. This is the story of me leaving my homeland. And my feelings about it. 

I know sometimes Americans are a seen as a joke. I remember backpacking through Europe and meeting Americans who had put Canadian Flags on their bags so people would like them more... And truthfully, I’m not always proud of American policies and practices. And some of our history is indefensible. Sadly, I’m certain future politicians will make mistakes as well. But my story is distinctly an American one. Good, bad and ugly. I am who I am today because of my American upbringing and lifestyle. 

I am the granddaughter of Appalachian people from West Virginia and Kentucky who moved to Ohio for industrial jobs. My grandparents married in their teens. As a child, I watched my paternal grandfather struggle with his own racism when my father married an African-American woman. I watched my maternal grandmother dance to Rocky Top on top of the bar in the bowling alley lounge. I grew up in a rental community in Ohio’s most dangerous city. I played t-ball. I went to vacation bible school and church camp every summer. I was a girl scout. As a teen, my social life revolved around Youth Group and Marching Band. I took family vacations in cars to the Smokey Mountains and DisneyWorld. 

I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My dad retired from the Air Force. My first husband was a Marine. I taught high school near Yorktown, Virginia. I taught English to international students in LA. I opened my own business in Alabama. I was a PTA President and a Business Coach of the Year. I shuttled kids to play dates and after school activities. I started a somewhat self indulgent blog… 

I love country music. And Bon Jovi and Madonna. My favorite holidays are the 4th of July and Halloween. I believe you can make your dreams come true. I was taught to stand up for what you believe in and to fight injustice anywhere. And like my American idol, Dolly Parton, I know it’s okay to have a big, flashy personality if you have a big heart and generous spirit to go with it. 

So after reflection, my 43-year-old self has internalized a new message. I'm not leaving my identity behind at all. I'm taking my Appalachian ancestors and their dreams with me. I'm representing my people and forging a new future for myself. I'm engaging with the world the way I was brought up to- with curiosity and hope. And if I overhear someone in a my new hometown of Manchester referring to me with a, “she must be an American”, I am going to hold my head up high and say proudly, “she is…” 

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My We the People

I became an American in Nagasaki, Japan. Well, not literally. I was literally born an American in 1974. But 23 years later, teaching English in Nagasaki, Japan, I found my American identity. I felt connected for the first time to the larger collective. The We the People. 

Prior to living in Nagasaki, my identity was tied to more local groups. Schools and church and family and friends. I do think I was proud to be from Ohio (Go Bucks!), but as a recent college grad who enjoyed feeling righteously indignant, when I thought or talked about "America" at all, it was most often to go on about what was wrong with it. And then I moved to a city our country had destroyed with an atomic bomb. 

Everyone there has a story about August 9, 1945. I will never forget the one the man in the picture below shared with me. He was a student in one of my classes. After he retired, he had decided to learn English. Because he loved America. And he had scars all over his back from flying glass blown out of windows in the blast radius outside of where everything had been obliterated. And he told me how after the bomb, his family hid in the mountains fearing the American troops coming into the city. Expecting the brutal treatment they knew conquering Japanese troops to inflict on their enemies. Instead, they were met with kindness (and chocolate!) by the American soldiers. In those first days after the bombing and in the rebuilding. I could hear his genuine affection for those American soldiers. And I was proud. The arguments about what my government had done and why fell away. In that moment, those soldiers from 52 years earlier became my we the people. I was proud on behalf of their actions. My American identity was born. 

And I've carried that with me for the last 20 years. That sense that I belong to a nation of good people with kind soldiers. And I've tried to be that kind of American. A kind one. 

After this election, listening to our new President's hateful rhetoric, I felt despondent. Untethered in a way that was surprising to me. It wasn't just that my candidate lost. That has happened before. This was not about policy disagreement. I felt like my American identity was being challenged. Because he did not represent me. Or the good people I thought made up our country.

 Apparently there are many, many people in America who have felt for years "forgotten." Like the government didn't represent them. Well now I know that to be a horrible feeling. To feel like you don't belong to our We the People. To feel unrepresented. It is disheartening. Luckily for me, the feeling didn't last long... 

me with two of the kindest Americans I know. At the Women's March in Birmingham, Alabama 

me with two of the kindest Americans I know. At the Women's March in Birmingham, Alabama 

There have been a lot of "Why I Marched" posts this last week. I honestly don't know exactly why I marched. I wasn't going to. I had a lot of things to do that day. But that morning I felt called to go. I asked my Dad to cover driving and picking up my girls to their events that day, and I set off on an hour and half journey to Birmingham about an hour and a half before the rally was set to start. So I don't know exactly Why I marched. But I do know why I am glad I marched. I found again my We the People.

The park outside of the Civil Rights Museum was packed with the biggest, most diverse crowd I've ever seen in Alabama. Apparently there were 5,000 marchers. They had been expecting a couple hundred. And it was a joyous day. I overheard someone say, "we're just preaching to the choir." Yes. Yes, we were. But sometimes you need to do that. Sometimes you need to see how big and beautiful your choir is. And how diverse. That day in Birmingham, and in photos from marches all over the world, I found again that I am part of a bigger collective. I do belong, and I am represented. But not by politicians. Because politicians and governments should reflect our We the People (and we should fight to make sure they do!), but they are not our We the People. I am represented by all the good people and each action they take to make our world a better place. 

I no longer feel untethered and unrepresented. My We the People are the Woman Marchers all over the world. My We the People are those who believe Black Lives Matter. My We the People are those who speak up for the rights of our LGBTQ friends. My We the People care about immigrants and refugees. My We the People want to take care of our planet. My We the People believe in science and in facts. My We the People value diversity. My We the People respect all religious beliefs. My We the People bring chocolate. My We the People are kind. And My We the People are a mighty number...