Tell me, what does being American mean to you? Is it a threat, privilege, burden, sacrifice, or simply a pleasure? Being American meant little to nothing to me until a man pulled a gun on me in Sydney for the simple fact that I was American. It was the middle of the afternoon and my friends and I were enjoying some Australian sun in a park when some bloke struck up a friendly conversation with us. He chatted with our Aussie friend for a bit, but when the rest of us introduced ourselves and when our American accents surfaced his tone changed. He became irate and a gun-shaped bulge appeared in his sweatshirt pocket. He threatened us and exclaimed, “I am sick and tired of my friends dying for YOUR war!” This was the first of many blasts at me because of my American nationality that I had yet to encounter in my travels.
My experience as an American only worsened as the 2004 election drew near. I had applied for my absentee ballot, but it never arrived at my dormitory in Melbourne. Helpless, I sat in a pub in New Zealand full of Kiwis as I watched my fellow countrymen and women on the television fumble and flop around trying to tally the votes. Everyone in the bar, and probably the entire country, were rooting for Kerry. I sat sipping my beer, my face growing redder and redder with embarrassment as the results jumped from one candidate to another. Once Bush was reelected I wanted to not just crawl under the table, but beneath the entire bar, where I hoped there was some magical place that would change my accent forever so that I could travel free of this American burden.
No such place existed and when I traveled back to Oz my Australian friends experienced a similar governmental let down when John Howard was reelected as well. It seamed the entire world had taken a turn for the worse. Elections all over were turning up the muck of humanity to run the planet. It was as if somehow all of Bush’s pawns ended up in exactly the right place, and those pawns were cocked and ready to continue the battle in the Middle East for every last bit of oil.
After seriously considering weather or not to remain in Australia and try to gain citizenship by marrying some gorgeous surfer, I finally decided to return to The States. Once the shackles of education set me free I hopped a plane to China. It felt great to once again watch the American Political Circus from across the globe. However, as news of my mom’s retirement fund being drained and the plummeting housing market came to me from across the oceans, the circus soon faded into a full-on American Nightmare. I began to fear for my family’s security, and started to seriously consider how I could possibly raise a family in such an unstable country. I would lay awake at night with the hustle and bustle of China swirling around outside my door, but my heart and mind were miles away from my body trapped in an American panic. But then a beam of hope traveled to my Chinese flat via Barack Obama’s book ‘The Audacity of Hope’. I would read it at night to settle my anxiety before drifting off to sleep. Then when he announced his decision to run for president I found that glimmer of possibility I needed to consider remaining an American citizen.
Just after this announcement I took a month long trip through Southeast Asia. My trip commenced in Vietnam where the traces of American conflict were etched across the faces of merchants, farmers, and almost every Vietnamese person I passed. Next we traveled to Laos where I thought I would be free of the haunting memory of war. The people there seamed more recovered then the Vietnamese, but as I rode rickety old busses carrying pigs on the roof to remote areas of the country I could literally see scars across the landscape. Apparently the warplanes could not land with missiles on board, so whatever they did not drop in Vietnam they would just unload on the little innocent country of Laos. Statistically Laos was the most bombed country during the Vietnam War. Visiting the temple from Apocalypse Now in Ankor Wat, Cambodia did not help ease my pains of war either. On those seemingly endless bus rides I racked my brain trying to come up with ways to make things right, knowing that there had to be something my generation could to.
I have terrified my family quite a bit over the years by moving to China alone, traveling on overnight trains, and disappearing for days without contact, but I really put them to the test in March when I went to Turkey. I promised my mom that I would lie about my nationality and I practiced my Canadian accent for weeks. I did lie about being American for the first week, but then a fellow American, Ann, convinced me that it might be scary to admit your nationality in the Middle East, but that we were important representatives and ambassadors from our homeland. For the last two weeks I professed my Americanness, and I have no bullet wounds to show for it…a few trying conversations surfaced, but words can never hurt me.
The one place I have traveled where I seriously questioned maintaining my American citizenship was Hiroshima. After I saw first hand what America had done to this place I could no longer justify being a part of the American monster. As I write this now, my eyes are growing fuzzy with tears. It was unbearable, and I considered going alone, but luckily another American I had met on my travels offered to meet me. Although Hiroshima is now a bustling city, it still had the thick air of a funeral. James and I tried to keep the mood light by renting bikes, but once we read the plaque explaining that the park we were frolicking in was over mounds of rubble and dead bodies we decided to walk. While there I kept interrogating history, digging for a valid reason for dropping the bomb. The more I dug, the clearer it became that The United States simply had this new shiny toy and wanted to try it out. Originally the US military selected three bombsites, all with different geographic landscapes, one was flat, and another was a valley. The soldiers was instructed not to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving those areas clean, so they could accurately gauge the devastation of their new bomb. I spoke to survivors and they told me stories of digging through rubble for family members. I looked at the tattered shreds of tiny school uniforms. I realized that the worst part was that the devastation didn’t end with bomb…that was just the beginning. Generations of children to come were mutilated, or killed by radiation.
The shadows were the most haunting part of the experience. The blast was so strong and quick that it acted like a camera; on a set of stairs a man's shadow had been permanently imprinted onto the cement. He was gone, immediately vaporized by the blast, yet his shadow remained. The dark parts of patterns on clothing were burned into people’s skin. Fingernails that were exposed to the blast were forever doomed to grow back black and twisted like some mangled tortured tree.
Perhaps now you can see why I have never been proud to be an American. I have nothing to defend. I am probably here today in one piece because when people attack The States I almost always agree with their stabs. I thought at first that foreigners were elitists, always thinking their country is the best, unjustly critiquing Americans, but this is not the case. We exist on a microscope to the rest of the world; they watch us very closely because whatever we do, what we decide has a huge impact on them. When we go to war, so do they, when our economy plummets, theirs is soon to follow. I have witnessed this synchronicity first hand, and my overseas friends still inform me of it today. This is why I have made promises, I have promised my friends and strangers overseas that I will do everything in my power to stand up and represent our generation. I have promised to keep digging for ways to make things right by not repeating our horrific past. I have also promised myself to fight for a country that I can justify living and raising a family in. I know Barack Obama is not going to make all of these things happen, but with him in office I can begin to have something to believe in…a sustainable future that makes sense for me, my family, and my potential children.