Sunday, July 27, 2008

Random Musings on Missing The 4th of July

Bottle Rockets--"Wave That Flag" (mp3)

1. It's been three weeks now, and I still haven't gotten over it. Missing the 4th of July means missing the peak of the summer. For me, there's a build-up there, then a long slow decline into the fall. Most years, there are vacations and good times that follow the 4th, but when you stand in the dark and watch those fireworks, there's a kind of invincibility against all things that takes hold, and the greatest feeling of invincibility of all is the feeling that the summer will never end. That's the 4th of July for me. When the 5th comes, that feeling is gone. And when I don't celebrate the 4th, as I didn't this year, the whole mental preparation for the flow of the summer is missing.

2. This sounds elitist, and I don't mean it to be, but if you are not born and raised in a country, it's got to be very, very difficult to get that country in your blood. In one way, life for an American is all of the events, large and small, that occur while you are part of the national experience--for me during those formative years, it ranges from the Pirates winning the 1960 World Series (0ne of my earliest memories is my dad watching the games) to the JFK assassination and the other '60's assassinations to all of the NASA emphasis culminating in the moon landing and Woodstock to the Moratorium when I was in high school and didn't understand why students were wearing black armbands and refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance to the rumors that Paul McCartney was really dead and deconstructing the songs in the high school cafeteria to the Steelers 4 Super Bowls and seeing Led Zeppelin in that same stadium to Watergate and knowing intuitively that there was something wrong with the man we were electing president. If you live outside America, you believe that the Dallas Cowboys are/were "America's Team." It reminds me of a live Graham Parker CD where he's talking about Russians before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Over there, he says, they think Billy Joel is a rock and roll singer. Ouch.

3. One of our last days in Korea, we noticed the Korean flag posted on streets everywhere. Tommy asked several people what they were for. "Oh, they're for Foundation Day," people would tell us, "It used to be a holiday, but the government cancelled it last year because they thought we had too many holidays." What? I repeat, what? A cancelled holiday? Who decides there are too many holidays? If you had to give up a holiday, which one would it be? Don't go for Arbor Day; that's too easy a target.

4. The 4th of July also means music. I always think first of lying on my back watching the fireworks at Engel Stadium and them playing Bruce Springsteen singing Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" with no understanding that it was written as a protest and it not really mattering. I have written in other posts of some of my 4th of July favorites, but over in Korea, it was that same Bruce Springsteen who seemed to capture America the best. As we sat in our "managed residence" high above Seoul, I played some songs that captured America for me. When it came my roommate's turn, he immediately chose a song by the great German band, the Scorpions. Now, I've got nothing against the Scorpions, in fact, they rock me like a hurricane, but it seemed to me support of my point #2.

5. I dig fireworks. Always have. In fact, growing up, dug firecrackers a whole lot more. A 4th of July that involved a brown paper sack of fireworks, enough to last the day, was a good day. We would start out as liberals, lighting entire strings of firecrackers at once; by the evening, we had becoming conservative, had unwound those strings and were lighting them one by one to last the night.

6. A thought on flags. It isn't a perfect analogy, I realize that, but imagine a person in South Korea who went around flying a North Korean flag or just had a bumper sticker with a North Korean flag on his car. It would be nothing less than treason. And yet, we have people who continue to celebrate the country that was never ours, the seceded South, by flying flags or putting on bumper stickers. The Bottle Rockets' song I've posted above is a brilliant examination of this situation, though from a racial perspective. I'm starting to look at it differently: if you fly the confederate flag, are you really celebrating the country that was never America?

7. Ex-patriates are sad people. You don't have to spend too much time around them to sense it. I'm not talking about someone who is just living in another country; I'm talking about someone who went for a little while not intending to stay and now finds him or herself a decade or more down the road and still there. Such people are especially bitter about the quirks and customs and behaviors of their host countries. At the same time, they are too far removed from their homelands to have much connection with those places. I suspect if they went back they would be equally bitter about the changes that have taken place back home since they lived there. I knew Thomas Wolfe was talking about a town, and I understood, but the sadness compounds when you realize how hard it is to go home again to a country that you left a long time ago.

8. And so, this year is the first 4th of July I have ever "missed," have not celebrated. The only thing I can equate it to was in 1969 when I was up at my grandparents' cottage on Podash Lake in Ontario, Canada for the first moon landing. My grandfather had brought up from Buffalo a small black and white TV so we could watch, but the picture was grainy, and it was hard to tell what was what. Even at the time, 12 years old, I remember think how odd that I was not in America for the culminating event of all my years of fascination with NASA. Alas, we cannot always be where we want to be. But next year.................

9. There was a second shooter on the grassy knoll.

"Wave That Flag" is from the Bottle Rockets first CD, available at Itunes and highly-recommended if you want to know what it was like when one of America's best rock bands first burst onto the scene.


Tommy D said...

Bobby, as usual, enjoyed your blog entry, though respectfully, I think you’re a bit off base here and not entirely accurate in your reporting. So here are my own observations about your 4th of July lament and your thesis that those of us not “born and raised” in the USA are less American than you:

1. I don't think you sound 'elitist' when you suggest that people like me (though I was born in the USA) are not quite as "American" as you are. Indeed, that would mean that those, like you, who were "born and raised" in the States are somehow better than those of us who have spent a considerable portion of our lives overseas. Does it make you more American? To quote the woman at the front desk of the Human Starville…”maybe yes, maybe no.” But no one my age witnessed the Pirates winning the 1960 world series, JFK’s assassination or Woodstock. And I'm not sure what seminal events in the 1980s I missed out on that make me "less of an American" (though I'm certain Billy can tell me:) What I do know is that growing up overseas forces you to consider your country through the eyes of others and puts you in situations where you are often defending the values and actions of the country you love. Like when I argued with my Libyan friend Jamal, the day after Reagan ordered the bombing of his hometown of Tripoli because of Libya's complicity in a discotheque bombing in Berlin earlier that month. I also recall stepping off the bus station on my way to school into a mob of 300 angry Arabs only to realize that I was wearing my favorite U.S. army camo pants on that particular day. Somehow I was able to slink past them unnoticed. I think your patriotic litmus test is a little shortsighted. Indeed, speaking for the expat American communities around the world - the diplomats, missionaries, students, businesspeople, and others on the "front line"...they all love their country just like you do and don't think of themselves as "not having their country in their blood." (surely that kind of jingoistic bravado is best left to drunken rednecks or national socialists). They are the ones sharing American culture and values with the rest of the world. As you experienced for the month in Seoul, living in another country is not always easy and it can be pretty isolating - you try to fit in, learn the language and appreciate the culture, but regardless, you're still an "auslander." But when you are with other Americans, you feel like you’re in this thing together. Which made celebrating the 4th of July all the better. Growing up in Vienna, we’d celebrate at the American International School – it was heavily guarded with machine-gun toting soldiers due to terrorist threats, but we’d ignore whatever the latest political issue was, wolf down hot dogs, play softball, sing the Star Spangled Banner till we were hoarse and watch fireworks late into the night. I’ve celebrated a lot of 4th of Julys here in the States, and like you, I love it – mostly for my boys now. But I haven’t experienced the same kind of intensity of feelings that I had when I was an expat. Had the void you felt in Seoul been filled with this of experience (instead of playing Golden Tee at a Canadian bar), I daresay you might rethink this. Not to mention, that I don’t think Ben Franklin’s time in Paris made him less of an American. And please don’t join the right-wing freaks who question Obama’s patriotism…like me, he grew up overseas for part of his youth (the rest was in Hawaii…hardly the America of which you speak), but I think he’s plenty “American.”.

2. The Dallas Cowboys ARE America’s Team but you are incorrect in assuming that expats in general believe this. God does, yes! Sophisticated Candadians in Seoul are fans, naturally! But sadly, not everyone is, though they obviously should be. In my own case, I was fortunate enough to live in Dallas as a young boy before moving to Europe. I packed up my Dallas Cowboys helmet and headed off to Europe. Thankfully, our friends from Dallas, being the true patriots they are, sent us videotapes of every game…what a treat to watch America’s team in Austria even if they were two weeks old. The term was not coined by an expat either, but by the editor of NFL Films in 1979 (thank you Wikipedia). The Cowboys have sold out more games, both home and away, than any other team in the NFL, and they are of course on national television during your turkey dinner on Thanksgiving - another great American holiday. As for other expats, they don’t actually believe that the Cowboys are “America’s Team” – indeed, like you, they hate the Cowboys and prefer their hometown teams. There are even some Steeler fans who live overseas.

3. Had I known that we were competing for the “most American” song the night I put on Scorpions for you, I obviously would have chosen a different tune than a song from a German rock band. Like you, I am devotee of the Boss. But there was no prompt like “what’s your American song Dillow?” – perhaps this was a miscommunication? Or perhaps this bit of misinformation fits nicely with the rest of the un-American expat thesis, so why not? (but shame on you)

4. “Case Closed” already…please!

Jason said...


I love the posting, even if I do think that perhaps there was an attempt to stir, so to speak. Specifically:

1) Dallas Cowboys are truly America's team. I can reference a poll-sampling Americans-which stated that the Cowboys were the team that were most associated with being 'America's team'. I confidently believe that if you sampled non-Americans the results would be similar, perhaps thanks to some marketing genius from a gentleman named Schramm.

2) The removal of a holiday, which is truly unconceivable to North Americans, was to make up for the fact that Korean society has gone to a 5 day work week, eliminating the Saturday shifts for almost all full time employees. The Korean labor force works long hours because they have one of the lowest productivity rates in the world. Every day counts when you are too hung over from Soju and the bathhouse the night before.

3) I think that your analogy with North Korean flags might be a little off. It is a well known fact that South Korean has one of the highest rates of active spies living its country-the majority of those being North Koreans. As well, although if you ask the younger generation that are US educated there is not a lot of apathy towards NK, amongst the conservative regions of the south and the 29-49 age bracket there is a lot of support for NK. That support is the reason why rampant anti-Americanism, which is a blatant slap in the face in my opinion, can rear its ugly head here very quickly.

4) Please do not use South Korean expatriates as an example of the sadness of expats. I would strongly agree if you said that about expats that deal here with blatant racism, poor working conditions, shady business owners, and a poor understanding of the cultural differences between countries at age 24ish, but I would not consider Tommy a sad guy, granted that I didn't know him when he lived in Europe.

5) Canada is the 51st state anyways, so how could you being there not be like the US?

Bob said...

Jason, I don't think of Tommy as an ex- pat, except in the most literal sense. A child of missionaries with a planned return to the US is not the sort of person that usually fits the term.

Instead, I'll quote a friend who emailed me yesterday:

You are right on the money regarding ex-patriates.....

I have a friend who has been dragging his family around to every Spanish speaking country on the planet -- never happy anywhere, always bad mouthing America and Americans when, if the truth be known, they had it
better here than anywhere else.......They know it --- won't admit it.

Bob said...

During the "nothing happened" 80's and early '90s, the following had profound impacts on the American psyche:

--Iran hostage crisis, as seen on Nightline
--Reagan getting shot
--Apple IIe and Macintosh
--Challenger explosion
--Iran-Contral scandal
--Reagan's "weekend in Grenada"
--Clarence Thomas hearings
to name a few.

One of the most powerful images for me was seeing the yellow ribbons draped on all of the bypasses over I-75 that were filled with cheering people as the convoys of American troops rode past below. I don't offer that as an example of my patriotism; I offer it as a cultural spectacle the likes of which I had not seen before and haven't seen since.

I stand by my point: if you didn't grow up here as a child/teenager without the daily cultural reference points, it's more difficult not to see America as an outsider.

You will note: the examples I gave were Billy Joel and the Dallas Cowboys, not American patriots--past, present, or living in Germany-- which should have given some indication of the fact that the discussion was about a cultural void, not a nationalistic one.

Jason said...

Well Tommy wouldn't be considered an expat now obviously, but he was at one time, with or without parental influences. I have a planned return date as well but I would still be considered a lonely expat.

As for bad mouthing your old country (ies), well I can't understand that at all.

Certainly the expat life has its ups and downs just like home life. You have to take them both.

Billy said...

Methinks the cultural/nationalistic differentiation is a key here, folks.

As a very close friend to a girl whose family spanned the globe for his work as a military protege for the Ambassador's office, and as a good buddy to Tommy and some clueless Malaysian ex-pat named Randy, I can proudly acknowledge that these folks have "information gaps" in their American culture. Most of these gaps are meaningless pop culture matters, but others are more in the vein of the events Bob mentions. (NOTE: The yellow ribbons Bob mentions were from the march toward Desert Storm in '91, if memory serves.)

None of these three friends would be considered, in my mind, less patriotic or nationalistic than myself. Although it's strictly anecdotal, I'd suspect I was the least patriotic of these.

As for "America's Team," I'm pretty sure I saw a report that said the LA Lakers were now the most recognized American franchise in the world. But I struggle to see how the NY Yankees couldn't be up there, since baseball is much more popular world-wide than American football.

But let none of this confuse the fact that Tommy is a moron no matter where he lives.

Tommy D said...

Thank you Billy, I do take that as a compliment coming from you :)

So, we're talking about both cultural and political reference points it seems - things like America's invasion of Grenada (hey, what about the more controversial invasion of Panama), the Clarence Thomas hearings (pubic hairs on coke bottles...poor Anita Hill), Iran-Contra (you mean “freedom fighters” right?), MTV, ESPN, etc. I guess I'm not quite sure why your experience of these events in the United States "counts more" than we expats who experienced them via the same media outlets you did (TV, Time Magazine, newspapers), but while living in another country? The very notion that these events can only have their true patriotic intravenous effect if viewed FROM the United States is where you go wrong. You saw the Clarence Thomas hearings and talked with friends and colleagues about it the next day around the watercooler. So did we with our fellow Americans living overseas, but in addition, we automatically became the surrogate voice of our country as we celebrated, defended or explained these events to non-Americans. One might argue that this pedagogical process alone creates in the expat a love and appreciation for his homeland, as does simply missing home, in a way that you were never able to experience. I would venture to say that your friend (and I mean no disrespect here to your friend) who emailed you about his expat friend who “drags his family around to every Spanish speaking country and badmouths the U.S.” has not talked to enough Americans who live overseas. The image of disgruntled anti-patriots is very far from the truth. Many are diplomats or military personnel who are serving their country loyally. I’ll admit that seeing how others view your country can be an eye-opening and challenging experience, and can change the way you look at your own country (perhaps as an “outsider” as you say). But this doesn’t mean America’s not in their blood. That’s like someone suggesting that you are not a true patriot because you believe (quite firmly) that the United States government engineered the assassination of its own president (and his brother).

Sure there were some "cultural gaps" because we didn't have all the same TV shows or read all the same news. (though we did have Dallas, Mash, the A-Team among others, and many of these “cultural gaps” were filled by good friends back in Dallas who sent us videos each month of our favorite TV shows). But surely there were those less fortunate within the actual “boundaries” of the United States (a proposed requisite for Americanness) who did not have a TV and did not or could not read much, and thus had no idea who Clarence Thomas was and who never saw ESPN in the 80s. Is America missing in their blood too?

I found a great website of some folks who were born and raised overseas, like me, and thought it might be interesting (and pretty funny) to consider just how much America they have in their blood.

General Norman Schwarzkopf
Senator Barack Obama
Senator John McCain
Christina Aguilara
The entire band “America” (grew up together in London, England)
Mia Hamm
Mark Hamill
Greg Kinnear
Shaquille O’Neill
Kobe Bryant
James Carroll
Ray Allen
John Denver
Priscilla Presley
Kathleen Turner
Newt Gingrich
Too many congressmen and senators to name
About 10 astronauts
Kathie Lee Gifford
Pat Conroy
Jessica Alba

Billy said...

In my mind, I was winning the argument until I saw Jessica Alba. At that point, I cried "Mercy! Uncle!"

Tommy D said...

I had you in mind Billy...

Bob said...

I'm having a tshirt printed that says, "Tommy Dillow--50% European, 100% American!" I'll wear it proudly as a concession. Someone else can figure out the math.

Tommy D said...

How bout 45% Austrian, 45% German, 9 % Scottish, 1% Korean (2 full months now!) but 100% American! Side note - Bob, I need follow-up on my email question to you...I'm confused...

Bob said...

TD, I wrote you back, but both emails came back as spammed by your powerful firewall.