I used to write about the ups and downs of life abroad. I used to write pithy posts about parenting. I used to write salty observations of marriage and life and love and all the stuff that falls between the cracks like so much cheese doodle dust.
Now I seem only to write about events taking place 3,000 miles away. In a homeland that’s not my current homeland but whose life, liberty and pursuit of happiness schtick is part and parcel of my makeup.
Right now, it’s excruciating to be an American living outside America.
But it’s also liberating.
Like so many other things in life, it’s both a blessing and a curse.
By definition, I’m an immigrant. A stranger in a strange land. I know first hand what it is like to try to go about your daily business in a country that’s not your own. It’s disorienting and difficult, frustrating. And make no mistake, I’m doing it from a socio-economic standpoint way up near the top of the totem pole. I can fly home to see my family. I can travel. I don’t worry about how I’m going to feed my kids or if they’re going to be harassed, deported or killed because they aren’t indigenous to the culture we are living in. I am so ridiculously privileged it’s hard to grasp sometimes.
But I can tell you this.
As a foreigner living in another country, I feel an immense gratefulness to the nation which has allowed me the privilege of living here. I imagine immigrants to the United States feel exactly the same way. I walk a careful line –exhausting at times–between maintaining the important elements of my own culture and adhering to Danish cultural norms. I am embarrassed–rightly–of the fact that I don’t speak the language of the country I’ve called home for five years. Yet never once has a Dane scoffed at me or chided me for not speaking their language. Never once has a Dane told me to go back where I belong.
Americans sometimes vilify recent immigrants for not speaking English, conveniently forgetting that not that far up on the family tree they had parents, grand-parents, or great-grandparents who traveled to America seeking a better life or fleeing war or poverty. Those strangers in a strange land often settled in enclaves of ‘likeness’, maintaining their language and traditions while they went about the exhausting task of assimilation.
My grandmother grew up speaking Italian. She and her sisters were the liaison between the old world and the new. But by the time my mother was born a generation later, only English was spoken.
Generations of immigrants have been weaving themselves into the fabric of American society, the same way I loosely assimilate into Danish society. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s difficult finding a balance between celebrating facets of the culture you came from while immersing yourself in the one you are in.
But they do it. My great-grandparents did it. So much so that their native tongue was lost in the time it took for a daughter to become a mother. The same way recent immigrants to the US will do it. Many will encourage their children to join the military–because what is more of a commitment to your new homeland than agreeing to risk your very life for it, let alone your liberty and pursuit of happiness?
Now I watch from afar, as the country which opened its doors to my grandmother’s family closes them to others. Out of what? Fear? Security? The boogeyman we’ve been told is out to get us?
The boogeyman in America right now is Muslim or Mexican or Somalian. Speaks a different language, worships the same God in a different way, eats different food. The boogeyman who is coming for us, coming for our children. Coming to eat us or kill us or blow us up or take away our ‘traditions’, our ‘way of life’.
It’s a story, the same story parents have been using for generations to get their kids to fall into line when the realities of life are too difficult or distressing to explain.
Are there folks who would do harm given the chance? Sure. There always have been. But there are more of them born, bred, and living within the borders of the United States than those coming in desperate to sleep at night without worrying if a bomb is going to fall through their roof or if a militia is going to come in and rape their daughter or kidnap their son into war.
America’s got plenty of home-grown boogeymen. But it’s too difficult to face that, so we project our fear onto the ones who sound odd or pray differently, whose food smells unfamiliar.
So here I sit on my ridiculously privileged fence in my ridiculously privileged life. I am torn between the need to keep my family safe, out of the true carnage–that which has yet to be released–and the need to be there to do something. I sit, thousands of miles away, hobbled and paralyzed.
I have never felt so deeply ashamed of my country, and yet proud of the those who are fighting for it. I have never felt so deeply the desire to stay put, to stay safe and sane, and the desire to go home, to put my own boots on the ground of the soil I call home.
It is a bizarre and difficult time to be an American abroad. In less than two weeks, those elected have managed to anger much of the world with their sweeping declarations of keeping Americans safe from the boogeymen.
I don’t recognize the America that I am viewing from afar, yet I have never felt so American in all my life.