Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A New Kind of Patriotism

I'm trying to decide how I want to frame this. Being an expat is somehow hallmarked within a culture as unpatriotic. Leaving your country to live in another, for any reason, creates a strange, unspoken, interpretation that one is apathetic toward their native land. In China, as foreigners, patriotism for our homeland was never reinforced within a playing field of international peoples. I may have been in China, surrounded by the Chinese, but expats gathered together and made a culture of their own; a culture not defined by roots tied to any country. We were united in that we all decided to live somewhere totally foreign to us. It was a choice, and often the only characteristic of ourselves that we knew for certain we had in common with one another. 

I sat one night, at a rooftop bar in Dongcheng with a group of expats I was meeting for the first time. It was dark and cool outside, and per the usual, there were no stars to be seen across the murky expanse of pollutants that layered into a wall between myself and the sky. I looked up occasionally, despite the knowledge that there was nothing to see, just to remind myself that the sky was actually there, and so were the stars, and the moon-- up there somewhere.

There were women from Brazil, South Africa, men from France, Italy, the list goes on, amounting to about 15-20 people; not more than two from the same country. I had never been surround by so much diversity (in the purest sense). And it was a strange thing to be among total strangers, but know that these people were the people who chose to connect on one commonality: the expat factor. And yes, that is a real thing. I sat and listened as they made jokes and spoke in several different languages at the same time. It was complex; cultures all so different, accents that varied drastically, all colliding into one another rapidly. I couldn't keep up. Simultaneously, the scene, on whole, as it stood before me was simple; just people talking to other people, foreign people. 

I distinctly remember realizing that I was the only American in the group, and hearing all of them crack jokes about America, I quickly began to realize how other countries viewed my own-- and their own, for that matter.  I remember hearing several jokes about Americans, and as I did, flashing back to what one of my friends told me before I left for China: "remember that you are an ambassador, not just of yourself, but of your country. Everything you say or do represents where you come from. Try and keep this in mind when you decide how to represent yourself."  I might be paraphrasing a little, but the over-all point I want to make, is that those words were 100% accurate, and 100% relevant. I sat and realized that these expats felt very differently about America than I did, and the only way I could change/impact their perception, was by bringing the best side of myself. 

As I tried to keep this perspective in mind, I felt something that would not have been stirred in me were it not for these circumstances: patriotism. I don't mean to say that I did not love and support my country prior to leaving it in order to live in China. I mean that I'd never been so inspired to check myself at the door and be, in every way I knew how to, the best side of America. I wanted to show them, that behind the stereotypes and impressions, not all Americans are that stereotype, and further, that stereotypes are rarely the best side of any country. 

Being back in America, I can't shake that sense of patriotism. I wish I could extract it from myself, like sap from a tree, bottle it, and give it people. Not because others lack patriotism, but because, much like Pandora's box, once this side of patriotism has been opened within oneself, it can never be locked away or closed again. Feeling the way I do (having playing no large role in what American's might consider patriotic acts, such as serving in the military), I wonder: how do soldiers feel when returning home? What kind of patriotism do they feel, and how does it differ from my own?  I have such a vastly different perspective from such a small experience, but it changes (very much), the angle at which I view, and think about, so many things.

For example: Sports. Football! Now hang with me for a bit, I know this seems like a wild tangent, going from patriotism and soldiers to sports, but I promise it isn't. 

I almost never watched any sports prior to leaving for China. Football season always irritated me. Perhaps because I grew up in a family that didn't really follow pop-culture trends (not a positive or a negative, just a fact). Listening to people get feisty over which team would win; watching all the adds on TV;  realizing that a large portion of the year would be devoted to football parties; bars always being packed full with shouting men who bump into you repeatedly with the excuse that the game is on and they are excited-- that stuff drove me nuts (arguably petty, but hand with me a little longer).

Looking at America under a new lens, I see football as something American's have created so much culture around. Americans come together, fairly united in the sense they are all watching the games together, showing support and enthusiasm. We have formed a tradition, one that some 90% (no source for that stat, I made it up and I don't care), of Americans become crazed and excited about. The conclusion? Watching football is patriotic!!! America + NFL = patriotism ! BOOM!  If this is how everyone views football, I do not know. What I do know, is that football has become some kind of patriotic ceremony in my mind, and I have begun to try and understand the game better, following along compulsively, shouting at the television, talking to friends about it, getting involved. 

This is the positive, albeit mildly twisted, form of patriotism I have adopted, in order to cling to the sentiment I discovered while talking with expats in China. I love America. I want to understand and learn more, be knee deep in its goodness, and that reflect all the best sides of it to others. Can this catch on, like a disease? I don't mean to be a lemming football fan, but I genuinely enjoy knowing that tons of other people are all doing the same thing, generally at the same time, and with a similar amount of verve. We have shared enthusiasm. 

On the flip side, something else has recently caught my attention, and is the reason I bring football up while discussing my new found form of patriotism (bringing the tangent home here!). I caught my first game recently, on TV, and was disgruntled when, right before a commercial break, the following message came on: "this game brought to you by Hyundai, proud sponsor of NFL." Yes, this is about money. Well, sort of. 

My sense of love for my country, and all things AMERICA has transformed into a larger part of me than it ever was before-- A sense of patriotism is something that I hope to believe is in all Americans, and that transforms or grows, depending on our circumstances and experiences.  And I watch the professional football season kick off, and enthusiastically enjoy the patriotism involved in participating in the football season, I pause and consider that billions of dollars are poured into football by companies who want to sponsor the game, and my heart sinks. Not because I don't enjoy it, obviously, and not because I don't want others to enjoy it. 

I'm bothered because I wish (Oh God I wish), that those same sponsors would pour an equal amount of money into our veterans. And while I love that Americans have football as such a huge uniting cultural element (in our contemporary society), I'm also saddened, that we are so capable of devoting money and time to such a strange form of entertainment, but not to soldiers and veterans, not on the same level. And as my new sense of patriotism stirs in me, I wonder: where America's patriotism is headed? I don't mean just as individuals, but as a unit. 

I'll cling to mine. I'll also watch football, and enjoy football, but not without some aching sense of duty, that we are a country of people capable of greater patriotism than just superbowl parties and flatscreen Tvs. We are capable of representing the best aspects of our country, especially within its borders. We are capable of loving our country, and also making our country what we love. 

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