This week I am celebrating my country because of its rich history and the freedom that history gives me to challenges its complexities. Will you be celebrating?
The United States of America is my home; it both has my heart and causes concern. I grew up being schooled on my country’s impressive birth as a revolutionary, independence focused, monarchy-free nation founded on religious freedom and the individual imperative. America’s birth was an epic tale of the fight for fair representation, equality, and the self-made man. Text and songs and people all around me were celebrating my country. Wow! I was all in!
And then as I matured and experienced my country as a young woman, I learned that the reality is more complex than what I was taught. Equality and fair representation were initially intended for a small portion of the nation’s population. Religion was free as long as you had faith, and better yet if it was in Christianity. The fabric of the United States of America was a weaving together, not separately, of church and state. These complexities were not a matter of malice in formation, but rather a reflection in the inherent blindspots of the Founding Fathers and their time period.
My faith in the greatness of America was first deeply shaken when I studied abroad in Australia for six months in 1996. I was enrolled in The Marine, Rainforest, and Aboriginal Ecology field study program through the School for International Training. During that time, I spent a month living in a caravan park in the Atherton Tablelands just inland of Cairns on the northeast coast. I was studying the impact of tourism on the nocturnal habits of wallabies. I lived in a tent and shared resources with the likes of Irish honeymooners, ex-cons, and single moms trying to make ends meet. Nobody there was celebrating my country that’s for sure! When we shared meals together, the conversation frequently landed on intense trash talk about the US. My campmates would rant about what a bully the US was for getting involved in other country’s business and telling them what to do. They would moan about how U.S. Big Corporate was destroying small towns as the likes of McDonald’s pushed out Mom & Pop shops that had been local hallmarks for years. They always had something to say about what was wrong with America.
I was initially shocked at and hurt by these attacks; they felt very personal. And yet their arguments were very compelling. As time wore on, the attacks became debates, then conversations. What I learned in that caravan park about foreigners’ perceptions of the America was reinforced as I travelled throughout the rest of Australia talking to locals and other international visitors. By the end of my time in Australia, I was feeling very conflicted about and even angry at the U.S. for the negative impact of its Exceptionalism on other countries.
With this in mind, I could have never anticipated my response to landing in LAX at the end of my studies. As I waited in the customs line, I was completely overwhelmed. Tears of relief and gratitude ran down my cheeks. I cried because I was HOME. I was standing in the land that I LOVED more than I had ever realized. I loved it for the family and friends it held. I loved it for the values it represented and the freedoms it offered. And I loved it EVEN MORE for its complexities.
Over twenty years later, the complexities seem to have only deepened and multiplied. However, as I reflect on the approaching the 4th of July Holiday marking the birth of the United States of America, I celebrate my right to not only hold, but also to express both my gratitude for AND concerns about the country I call home. I am celebrating my country!
So, what do you celebrate about the country you call home?