A Few Thoughts on Americanism
The Fourth of July was my favorite holiday growing up. In a lot of ways, I think it still is. But it’s harder, now.
As a kid, my mom and I would go to Bridgeport, California every year. My Great Grandmother lived there, and we would stay with her. I absolutely adored her. Her life was like something out of Indiana Jones. Or, it seemed that way to me, at the time. Seeing her was always a treat, but Forth of July in Bridgeport was something else altogether.
The town is so little that if you blink, you’ll miss it. But that didn’t stop them from having a massive parade, with old cars and bands and beauty queens and horses. Some of my relatives were always in the parade, and I liked to think they threw me an extra big handful of candy. There was always a street market, and a pancake feed that the high school did as a fundraiser. They had blow-up mazes and waterslides and bounce-houses on the courthouse lawn, mud-wrestling, pie-eating, and all the other quintessential contests. All the buildings on Main Street were decorated with bunting, like in all the old pictures, and we always stopped by the Jolly Cone for ice cream. Sometimes we’d go out to Mono Village and spend the afternoon hiking or out on the lake, sometimes we would go back to GG’s house and play games. Sometimes we’d go visit my Aunt Josie and Uncle Al, and they always seemed to have half a dozen people passing through, or they were having a BBQ, or the family had stopped by, or for some other reason the place was full of people. And at night, we would set up some chairs on the street, which was lined on both sides with people, strangers, who acted like we were all old friends. All along the street (technically a highway, no less) fireworks would light up the pavement in red and blue and green and pink.
And then the real fireworks would begin, set off by my Uncle Al, turning the sky into an easel, painting the night with stories and hope and inspiration.
Forth of July was the one day every year that I always felt unstoppable. It made me feel empowered, one person supported and held up by millions of people, like every dream I’d every dared to entertain was as close as those fireworks, falling down upon me from the stars.
It’s harder, now.
We don’t just goto Bridgeport, now. It’s something that I have to arrange for myself, that I have to figure out where I’m going to stay or if I’m going to stay in town, that I have to find the money for. And it isn’t always doable. This year, it wasn’t. I’m leaving soon, and we needed the time today to get things done, because it’s still up in the air whether or not I’ll have anyof the three things I think are really necessary for this first month-and-a-half trip (water, electricity, curtains for privacy).
Honestly, my biggest challenge today was staying optimistic. Because, to me, Independence Day has always been about community. An entire country of people supporting each individual, coming together and celebrating the one thing we all have in common: we’re all proud to be Americans. And today I didn’t go to a parade, I didn’t participate in any contests, I didn’t even watchany contests.I hardly even left the house aside from a Home Depot run. For me, that just isn’t the 4th of July.
And it got me thinking about what the United States of America really is, and what it really means to me to be an American, and why I’m taking on this whole endeavor to begin with.
I tend to lose track of what I’ve written here versus what I’ve written elsewhere, and what I’ve actually posted here versus what I haven’t. I started writing a bit about where my travel bug got started, but I don’t think I ever got around to posting it. So I’ll jump into the middle of the story, and leave that for another time, some week when I’ve been boring and having nothing to say.
I went on Rotary Youth Exchange as a gap year between high school and college. I went to school and stayed with host families in Germany. And while I learned a lot from living in the country and getting to know people there, I think I learned the most from the other exchange students.
I’d always been proud to be an American. I was proud that (despite some major digressions over the years) we tended to be at the forefront of social policy, and that our history featured people like Amelia Earhart and Martin Luther King, Jr., people whose bravery and hopefulness and imaginations pushed them to the forefront of history and of their fields.I was proud of everything that I believed the United States to stand for: freedom, the pursuit of happiness, making dreams come true, hard work, acceptance, community.
It wasn’t until I went on exchange that I realized not every American my age felt that way.
There was anther exchange student, a boy from New York, who very openly told every other exchange student that he was embarassed to be an American. Now, this was 2013, even before the controversies around the 2016 election. I can only imagine what this guy would say now. Maybe I should ask him.
I remember trying to gently scold him (something along the lines of “we’re supposed to be ambassadors, why do you keep saying you don’t like being an American?”) and he simply asked me, “Why are you proudto be one?”
Honestly, that shut me up. Because I didn’t know. I’d always been proud of my country, but I’d never thought about why I shouldbe proud (or why I shouldn’tbe). So I thought about it. And I thought about it. And I thought about it some more.
Meanwhile,I was seeing my country through the eyes of a foreigner. The media sites in Germany were reporting mass shootings in the United States every month (the year before, while at home, I remember maybe one or two being reported), adults were asking me about politicians whom I’d never heard of (but whom the adult in question always seemed to have a very strong opinion of) and my classmates in my German high school had endless questions about everything from Prom to Obamacare. The United States, from an outside perspective, looked like a scary, unpredictable place with an immense amount of power and little care for anything outside itself. And besides all that, I realized by talking to some of the other exchange students from Central and South America that a large part of the world thinks we’re totallypretentious. So I had to wonder: Why amI proud to be an American?
There were two exchange students from Venezuela that year, and they had a big impact on my little fight with my nationality. The trouble in their country was just beginning to acquire international attention, and we all knew there was trouble brewing for them back home. I remember wondering how they could stand to be so far away, when their own country (at least from the outside) seemed to be falling apart.
Those two are a pair of the nicest people I know. No one smiled bigger or more genuinely than they did, no one seemed to understand how valuable our time in Germany was as well as they did, no one made more genuine friendships than the pair of them. And it blew my mind how in tune they were with their culture. They could stand up and start dancing a traditional dance, they knew all the old stories, all the classic songs. They knew their country’s history better than anyone I’d gone to school with. Despite everything going on back home, it was clear that they knew where they came from, and they were proud of it.
Ultimately, I decided that, despite all it’s flaws, I’m proud of my country. But not because of anything we’ve done. Every good thing we’ve managed in the last 243 years can be argued against with ten horrendous things.
I’m proud of the ideaof the United States of America. I’m proud of what the founding fathers (and mothers) set out to do, even if they didn’t have the full picture yet. I’m proud of Amelia Earhart and Martin Luther King, I’m proud of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, I’m proud of Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau and Toni Morrison and Emily Dickinson and Maya Angelou. I’m proud of Ferris Wheels and radiocarbon dating and Edison’s light bulb and Tesla’s alternating current, I’m even proud of Edison and Tesla’s rivalry. I’m proud of a black woman who refused to get off a bus and a San Francisco City Council Board member who knew who he loved didn’t impact his ability to govern. I’m proud of a belief that the world can and should be connected, and that no goal is unreachable, not even the stars.
The United States today is not the country that I believe in. It’s possible that the country I believe in never existed, and won’t come to exist in my lifetime. But the ideas and ideals that the United States is built on, those I believe in with every fiber of my being. Thinking about it today, I realized that’s the real reason I’m doing all this: climbing in the van and hitting the road. I want to seek out the country that I believe in, in whatever little places it might be hiding in, and I want to bring it out into the world.
Besides, what better way to embrace life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness than searching for America on the open road?
This post got away from me a bit. I planned on writing about cabinets, but I’m more than a little tipsy right now, and this has been on my mind all day. I love my country, but it’s been hard to be proud of it lately. And a big goal of my travels and this blog is to bring a little of that community back, that sense of the country rallying behind each individual that I felt as a kid.
I promise to have a big cabinet update in my next post, but for now: Happy Fourth of July!I hope you all got out and properly celebrated today (unlike me)!
P.S. I promised a very special someone (practically family) that I would write a blog post tonight. In light of the (probably slightly politically polarized) contents, I’m not sure he’d want his name mentioned (even just his first name, as per my policy (you can never be too sure… or, at any rate, I’d prefer to never be too sure), but a special shoutout to him.
P.P.S I also post my blog on Medium.com. If you have a Medium membership (or want to get one, it’s only $5 a month and you get access to all kinds of super cool articles across all kinds of topics) you can read and interact with my blog posts here (yes, I know the blog publication title is weird, if you’ve got something awesome I would be THRILLED to hear it), and I’ll receive a small payment based on your interactions. Thanks!