his morning I received a call from a good Dutch friend asking what I was doing to celebrate the “4th of July
”… and I realized that as I’ve lived outside of my own country for nearly a decade, I haven’t celebrated America’s birthday in years. During our first years living overseas (we were in Paris at the time), my husband & I would turn up our noses on French food for 1 day of the year to go to Planet Hollywood
on the Champs-Élysées with our American friends Mike & Cindy (who’ve long since returned to Oregon). We’d celebrate with an orgy of fried foods, laughter and music so loud that we had to shout to hear one another. I remember another year in Paris when we went to a 4th of July Party / Going Away Party for an American friend who was returning to the States. The party was held on a roof-top terrace overlooking the Eiffel Tower and just a few weeks later we sat on a 5th floor fire escape overlooking Trocadero watching the Bastille Day
fireworks display with an English man, a French man and a Chinese woman. That year somehow the two
events merged in my mind as my very own Independence Day celebration – a melding of the American me and my French sensibilities.
Maybe that was the year that I started to become an “international citizen”. It must have been that next year that the 4th of July happened as if it were any other day. Without the makeshift stalls selling firecrackers at the edge of town, or the American flags waving from front porches, I wasn’t reminded of the holiday! Without the visual reminders, I never thought to remember the celebration.
The 4th of July is as American as Apple Pie, Baseball, Parades, back-yard BBQ’s, red and white checkered tablecloths and ants invading the picnic! The date technically commemorates the adoption of the tory.org/Declaration/” target=”_blank”>Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, but it is much more than a federal holiday. In all the parades, fireworks and enthusiasm, Independence Day defines the American Spirit. As my Dutch friend and I chatted on the phone this morning, discussing the meaning behind the American Independence Day, she asked me a difficult question – the type of question that foreigners often ask – taking me by surprise and making me verbalize an intuitive answer.
“How do you define the American spirit?”
As an American – true red, white & blue – I’ve lived outside the USA for almost a decade. But my birthright remains strong, providing a framework in which I find & define my identity – I’m a passport-wielding American, but in spite of an international lifestyle, I am an American through and through! An Irish friend who spent a few years living in New York told me “What I love about Americans is that they step into a room and expect to be adored! It’s a wonderful trait Americans have – a confidence and a belief in themselves that defines the American spirit.” Whether it’s a Nike slogan “Just do it!” or the rugged self-assurance of the now politically-incorrect, iconic Marlboro Man, as Americans we possess a “can do” attitude that often translates into an entrepreneual spirit.
My dad always says that the last two words in “American” are “I can” and the longer I am overseas the more I realize how this self-empowered, do-it-yourself attitude truly is an American trait. As Americans we are self starters. The American dream is based on the belief that all people are created equal – essentially anyone can do whatever their personal skills & desire allow them to do. While European friends who watched hours and hours of video, post Hurricane Katrina, might disagree with this statement, I believe that the social hierarchy found almost everywhere else in the world is not as readily in effect in America as it is elsewhere.
I think my European & Asian friends wrinkle their brow in confusion at me sometimes – asking “Why do you do it?” – IT being any number of things from moving to a new country, volunteering as the president of an international club, helping organize my town’s antique fair, starting a new company or writing a book (which, fingers crossed, a publisher will someday fall in love with) and in the meantime blogging about my life as Th
e Antiques Diva™. More than once a friend has said, “Wouldn’t it be easier to have stayed home in Oklahoma? To have ‘read the book’ rather than ‘tried to write one’? Why bother to learn Dutch when you are only here for a few years? Why waste the time & effort starting a company for that same reason?” “What do you get out of volunteering on the Board of your women’s club? Why not merely be a member and reap the benefits without so much bloody work?”
But to do any of these things is in my very nature as an American. An elderly Japanese friend, who is a member of the same women’s social club as I am, remarked one day after I returned from a solo trip driving back from England (and taking the car on the ferry) to Holland by myself, “You’re so good at finding your way around Europe. Americans are always good at finding their way. In our club, American members always know where to go, how to get there, and then they are the first to volunteer to coordinate a group activity to go out and do or see something!”
As a foreigner living abroad, I don’t take my new home for granted. I go to the museums, I visit the tourist sites, I eat at the best restaurants (I like to say “I’m eating Europe, one bite at a time”) and try to learn as much about the area as I can. Part of the joy of day-to-day life in being a foreigner living abroad is that you get the excitement of being a tourist while dealing with the drudgery of day-to-day issues such as a plumbing repair in a foreign language (trust me, that teaches you vocabulary you never wanted to know) or grocery shopping without being able to understand the labels.
So now, while living in Holland and France before that, I’m still an American, red, white & blue. But through cultural absorption of the surroundings of my new countries, a part of me becomes “Almost French” or “Almost Dutch”. But to be “almost any other nationality” is in fact part of what it means to be an American. When you are American, you are always – through your ancestors – something else. I’m English, I’m Irish, and I’m Scottish, with a little Native American somewhere down the road thrown in. I’m certain a German fell in the pot at some point, and I must tell you I can’t walk through the streets of Istanbul without someone thinking I’m their cousin! A Russian friend was recently granted her American citizenship, an Indian friend waits to take their nationality test, and my former Afghan housekeepers immigrated to America with hopes of someday becoming American.
Anyone can become American.
The United States is a cultural melting pot with many nationalities thrown together to form a new nationality. Perhaps it is the very nature of how America was founded – by pioneers – that defines the American Spirit. Perhaps our Pioneer Past is the reason why we, as a nation, tend to be self-starters and entrepreneurs. And perhaps the very fact that as pioneers we succeeded in forming our new land gives us the inherited internal confidence that my Irish friend spoke of.
I’m not sure that I have the answer to my Dutch friend’s question on the definition of the American Spirit, but as my friend and I chatted on the phone I realized that, for me anyway, when I look through a lens at my home country across the pond, I almost feel I can see America more clearly now from afar. Even though I forget to celebrate the 4th of July, I think I’m more patriotic than I ever was when I was living in America. Just like the person in the forest who couldn’t see the forest for all the trees, I couldn’t see America for all the Americans! America was normal to me so I suppose I didn’t truly appreciate what was special about it or Americans.
Now when I visit my family in Oklahoma each year, my mom laughs at my desire to ride horses. As a child, or heaven forbid as a teenager, my interest in life on the ranch was non-existent. But through the wisdom of adulthood I look back and realize how good I had it! I now appreciate so many things; I realize how special & unique to my home-town they are: I appreciate the horses, the rodeos, the cowboys, even the cows, the Friday Night Fish Fries and Church Potluck Dinners. Without having these elements in my life, I’m even more aware when I do have the opportunity to experience them! I’m more of an Okie now than I ever was when living in Oklahoma! In part because being away helps me realize what’s special about my hometown.
And it’s the same with America. I feel sometimes, through moments of homesickness for the USA, that I am better able to see what makes America – or American’s – so special!
Happy 4th of July!
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