I had an interesting experience as an "American" abroad this past weekend. My Brussel's host and I somehow got invited to a celebration of US Independence Day held by the US Embassy in Brussels at the Hilton Hotel on Friday Night and to a celebration at the Brussels American School on Saturday.
As a San Francisco girl I sometimes have difficulty with the kind of patriotism one often sees at these kinds of events, but I found myself genuinely touched. I took a photo of a man who'd had his face painted at the very family-friendly BBQ event on Saturday (featuring a great blues band and country line dancers). His face was covered in red and white tripes and a blue field with white stars. He also had the word "VOTE!" painted on his forehead. When I'd taken the picture he said very seriously, "Now, are you registered to vote with your absentee ballot?" It was all quite lovely.
Then again, the night before, the US Charge d'Affaires to Brussels had begun his remarks by saying, "When our company...uh...I mean country...was founded..." and I couldn't help thinking of both Halliburton and the CIA (nicknamed "The Company").
There is a spray painted image in several places in our neighborhood in Brussels (Ixelles): Uncle Sam, in his typical finger-pointing "I Want You! for the US Army" pose, but instead, underneath it reads "I Love You!"
This for me evokes the many contradictions of being an "American" abroad. But I guess I've always been living with this kind of dual identity: I was born in Australia so my European American father could "avoid the draft" for the war in Vietnam (his father, my grandfather, had been an officer in the OSS); and my step-father, a fourth-generation Chinese American, had served as an officer in the US War in Vietnam. On my two visits to Vietnam, I could not stop thinking about these contradictory heritages.
Now, my European American former-hippie dad has become rather conservative, while my Chinese American step-father resents the hypocrisy of the leaders who sent him to war as an idealistic young man and then made poor decisions that cost so many of his comrades their lives and then cost him respect and care when he came home. Last year I told his cousin, who directed a documentary ("Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision") about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that my step-father had served in the war (they'd been out of touch for over Protected content . After I told her, she made a point of thanking him for his service to this country. He told me she was the first person to have ever done so since his return.
This Independence Day, celebrated abroad, I asked myself, what does it mean to be an "American" for me? Somehow, I think it means accepting all these contradictions, and also being both "proud" of and questioning of them at the same time.