I remember my earliest stirrings of patriotism. Of all places, they started when we were living in Europe. I can still see the pictures in my mind of my 5th grade Social Studies textbook at the International School of Brussels. On the cover was a painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington posing all Founding Father-like in front of a large table, quill pen at the ready. I suppose that was Tom Jefferson on the other side of the table, waiting patiently for his turn. Strident green and yellows were the background colors for the scene. Even though it was an international school, it seemed that the focus was on American history. My fellow students included British, Swedish, and Indian kids. Even my teacher was Belgian. I have a vague memory of going to a different teacher for Social Studies, though, and I think she was from the U.S.
|The road signs in Brussels were in French and Flemish, but oftentimes Flemish hooligans would cross out the French names.|
In Brussels we lived in a predominantly Flemish area of the suburbs. Our address was #1 Kerselarenlaan, (Cherry Tree Lane!) in Beersel. While we could get by with our limited French, Flemish was way out of our purview. We learned a little of the history of the conflict between the Flemish and the French Walloons, but things were more or less peaceful when we were there. None our neighbors ever made an attempt to say hello, in fact, my mother tells me, we were outright shunned. Perhaps we Americans were as bad as the French? To this day I don’t know why this was preferable to my parents to living in the French areas, where most of the other American expats lived. Once I had to run next door in an emergency to make a phone call when we were moving out of our house and our phone had been disconnected. The lady of the house scowled and pointed at the phone, and that was the extent of her hospitality.
I know there was anti-American sentiment in the Philippines, but I never had any experience with it. Ultimately, the U.S. Naval base in Subic Bay was closed, possibly due to an anti-imperialist movement. There are tensions today because of joint U.S. and Filipino military maneuvers in the southern part of the country.
When I turned 18, I set out to fly halfway around the world from Singapore to London. A British friend (okay, they were drinking buddies) of my mom’s from Manila, who had recently repatriated to England, had agreed to take me in for the summer as her aupair/nanny. I also went to summer school at Richmond College there. My mom’s friend lived in a semi-detached house in Ealing, a suburb of London. It was a quiet, residential street, and there were lots of sketchy-looking teenagers who roamed around during the day.
In a letter home, I wrote: “There has been some friction from some neighborhood punks who found out there is an American broad living here, so now they’re always hanging around the front gate. Some of them have been friendly, others not so friendly. I hope the novelty will wear off soon.” I can still hear their mocking voices: “You’re an AMERICAN,” as if that was the most awful thing to be. They made fun of me, chanted at me, made me feel lower than low. They even scrawled “American” in chalk on the sidewalk. I was confused; I didn’t know how to react. I ran inside, ashamed, (why?) but it never occurred to me to fight back.
I used to take a double-decker bus to school every day, an hour each way. I did a lot of queuing at the bus stop, trying to blend in. Once I was waiting behind a British gentleman when an American tourist came up and asked him for directions. After the tourist left, the British guy turned to me and said, “Bloody Americans!” I tried to think of a snappy comeback, and with as American an accent as I could muster, I replied, “Yeah well that’s the way it goes!” He turned beet red and turned away.
Another time, as I was walking down the sidewalk, I was approached by a British couple; they had lost their way. They probably noticed the confused look on my face and, said, “Oh dear, you’re a foreigner, aren’t you?”
Many, many years later, my sister and I went on a humanitarian aid trip to Kazakhstan, where my daughters were born. We had to make a tight connection in Munich, and by the time we got on the plane we were out of breath and riddled with adrenaline. As I made my way down the aisle, juggling my belongings and checking the seat numbers against our boarding passes, I noticed that there was a man in my seat. I said, quite politely, “Excuse, me, I believe you are in my seat.” He looked at me blankly, while I double- checked. Oops, I was wrong; he was in the row behind me. I said, with every ounce of humility I could muster, “Oh, my mistake, I am in this row. Please forgive me.” His look went from blank to one of unfettered disgust. As his eyes burned into me, he growled, with his thick guttural German accent, “You must be an American.” Really? REALLY? I was so taken aback, it was all I could do to plop down in my seat, face burning in embarrassment. My mortification was complete when my pillow fell behind my seat and I had to lean back and ask him to hand it to me. Stupid Americans.
We always think of ingenious things to say to an insult after the fact. I should have said, “Why yes, I AM AN AMERICAN, and thanks to my forebears, your country is in pretty good shape today. Ever heard of the Marshall Plan?” To those young boys in London, I should have flippantly retorted, “Yes, I AM AN AMERICAN, what of it?” I realize that my country has not always made popular decisions, but haven't we always had good intentions? Maybe the interpretation is that we have always been self-serving, but don't our humanitarian efforts count for something? Why do we all have to be painted by a single brush?
Being a TCK has exposed me to a lot: poverty, climate extremes, political unrest, and cultural differences. It is a sad commentary that the world can be an unfriendly place at times, but, having been on the other side of a prejudice, I have determined not to judge anyone by the plurality of his nationality. If only we could all see it this way, maybe we could put the United Nations out of business.