Being in an international community, I have had to get used to a number of new things. One of which is getting acquainted with a new identity. At home in the United States, I may have a number of identities depending on those whom I am around. To name a few, I may be known as a sister, daughter, wife, Christian, friend, employee, neighbor, Minnesotan, or Iowan (whenever individuals attempt a derogatory stab towards the inhabitants of my blessed Grant Wood Homeland).
However at Haven of Peace Academy, in addition to all those previously mentioned and more, I am known as an American to my students and colleagues, an identity that, although has of course been mine to wear for the whole lot of my life, has been simply assumed and for the reason of being redundant, left unmentioned in the crowds of commonality that I am used to.
Being labeled as an American within an international community forces you to decided whether to be patriotic or not. Patriotism, and my opinions of such, assign me a specific place in the long single filed line of US citizens symbolizing a spectrum of varying degrees of lovers and haters of the “Fifty Nifty United States”. I don’t usually bother myself with worrying where I choose to place myself in that hypothetical line unless I’m celebrating Memorial Day weekend by visiting the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, or studying any episode of US history. Friday, November 9th, 2007 was a similar day, in that patriotism for the United States was again brought to the front of my thoughts.
This last Friday at Haven of Peace Academy was the highly anticipated 14th annual International Day which not only encourages students to wear national and ethnic costumes, but includes a grand parade of nations followed by gastric, melodic and rhythmic celebrations of the 29 national and cultural groups represented at HOPAC. The cherry on top of this giant ice cream sundae was, of course, the early dismissal.
As a citizen of the United States, I was to participate in International Day as an American, and thus began my inter-dialog: should I do my best Betsy Ross and hand stitch myself a skirt out of the American Flag that I keep secretly folded up and hidden in my bra next to my heart everyday, or would wearing blue jeans be quite appropriate enough? How proud am I, really, to be an American? Can I truly “stand up (dramatic cymbal crash) next to you and defend her still today because there ain’t no doubt I love this land”…?
I’d like to take this opportunity to tangent away from my thoughts leading up to International Day for a brief time with every intention of coming back. As an example of my patriotic convictions and questions I would like to discuss Thanksgiving, a timely appropriate holiday that is only celebrated in the United States, making it as American as baseball and apple pie, or perhaps football and pumpkin pie.
I love Thanksgiving and the meaning behind it. I completely agree with spending quality time with family and loved ones while contemplating those material things, people, and values for which we are thankful. And who isn’t a sucker for mashed potatoes! I whole-heartedly value the fact that my country has a holiday like Thanksgiving. However, I also realize that historically speaking, Thanksgiving symbolizes, and partially celebrates, our separatist English ancestors coming to North America, who were so ignorantly and embarrassingly ill-prepared for life in the new world that they shouldn’t have lived past the first two months.
Ironically, through the very help provided by Squanto and his Native American friends, the Pilgrims were allowed to survive which would ultimately bring about the long suffering demise of the Native American. Even as I give thanks for the things that are significant to me on the fourth Thursday of every November, in the back of my head I am also mindful, and even a bit sorrowful, of the way my country took and terminated, without apology or thought, the many cultures and people groups who lived here originally.
Patriotism makes me think of being boastful of one’s country, and because I have learned about all the numerous scars my country has on its conscience by inflicting them on others, I tend to shy away from boastful.
Although there may be many things that I am ashamed of in my country’s history, after living in Tanzania, I have noticed that there are many national establishments in the United States for which I am quite thankful and appreciative. One of these being our justice system. I know our justice system isn’t perfect. (and while I’m mentioning perfection, I’d like to comparatively say that I don’t believe there are any establishments, countries, cultures, or governments in this world, past present and future who can boast perfection. Imperfection is part of all our identities as fallen humans.)
However, the justice system with which I am familiar is one that I can comfortably put my faith. I have never been scared that a fine upstanding member of the Cedar Rapids Police Department would pull me over for the sole purpose of expecting a bribe. I also have them to thank for my protection, not only as a citizen protected from potentially harmful criminals, but if I were to ever be arrested, legitimately or illegitimately, I know that the justice system would protect me from mobs who may be wishing to take out their vengeance on me. The American Justice System would also give me the benefit of being innocent until proved guilty before a judge and hopefully unbiased and unbribed jury.
Unfortunately, and uncomfortably, this is not the case in many countries, including the one where I currently reside. United States, I apologize for taking for granted the luxury that you provide your citizens by striving to offer an upstanding justice system.
A little side note story, inside the tangent, which will all be coming back to International Day: During some training discussion about driving in Tanzania much advice was given concerning Police and when they decide to pull you over for reasons that have to do more with the color of your skin than any traffic violation you may or may not have committed. A more frightening threat of driving concerns the many fatalities that come from traffic and pedestrian accidents.
If a driver in Tanzania hits a pedestrian, the stupid thing to do would be to stop and see if everything is ok, while the smart thing to do would be to leave the scene as quickly as you possibly can. The horrible reason for this is the fact that it is perfectly acceptable and quite predictable that in this Tanzanian situation all the people standing around to witness this atrocity (and there will always be people around) will form an angry mob wishing only to beat the driver of the offending vehicle to death. The question of who was at fault will never even be a fraction of a thought in the outcome. And thus, I am thankful that I will return to the country of my birth with a justice system that does not add to chaos but helps to prevent it.
Bringing you back to my confused feelings before International Day, I decided on adorning my American skin with a pair of my favored jeans and my blue shirt that announces “Buck’s Taxidermy” from Wabasha, Minnesota. That’s got to be the most American outfit that I thought to bring with me to Africa. Brandon wore similar attire but decided to go a step beyond by fashioning himself a three corner hat out of construction paper and imitating George Washington crossing the Delaware whenever students asked him why he was wearing a pirate hat like Jack Sparrow.
After role was taken in homeroom the morning of International Day, everyone reported to the basketball court for the commencement of all the day’s festivities. Everyone stood to sing the Tanzanian National Anthem, a Kiswahili song that I am extremely proud to report to you that I have successfully memorized… both verses(!), and then our school’s director stood up to welcome all the students and their families, representing 29 different countries, to Haven of Peace’s 14th annual International Day.
It was in the director’s introduction that International Day was given, in my mind, a much fuller understanding. “International Day is a very special day where we come to celebrate and learn from our differences. We are here to proudly show our country of origin, but we are also excited to learn about all the other nationalities that we are blessed to have among us here at HOPAC.”
The Parade of Nations started with Tanzania as the host country, but then followed alphabetical order, which meant that I had to wait my turn before being allowed to wave my flag and prance around the basketball court to the tune of “Oh Say Can You See”. When the first national group started the Parade, I was utterly shocked to have to actively convince my eyes not to flood over with emotion. It was so exciting to see these students, who normally were confined to the ordinary HOPAC school uniform, dress and take pride in their home countries!
They were Australian, Canadian, Danish, Ethiopian, German, Ghanan, Greek, Guatemalan, Irish, Indian, Japanese, etc. with so much conviction and passion to show off their rich and unique identity. I was filled with a sense of pride simply being able to watch such a stunning display… and then it hit me. I was proud. Not initially because I was an American, but because I was able to partake in this wonderful celebration of the union of so many nations.
Soon it was my turn to stand up for my country and march around that gym, and in so doing, I jumped to my next conclusion: I was, in fact, over flowing with pride that I was a citizen of the United States not because of anything that we had done as a country, but simply just because we were there, that The United States could be present in seeing God glorified among the nations. And it may sound silly, but that moment was the most I have ever been Proud to be an American.