Thursday, June 16, 2011

Am I an American?

What is a man anyhow? What am I? What are you?
--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

They call me a farang here, most often pronounced "fa-lang," a generic term that Thais use for all Westerners.  I don't mind the label, although some tourists and expats get incensed at what they perceive as racism (turn about, fair play, I say).  I also don't mind being stereotyped -- all farangs are rich and smell like a turtle (tao) -- because I also benefit for the respect automatically given in Thailand to teachers and the elderly.

National stereotypes are near universal, although less so today perhaps than in the 19th century when the Russian expat Alexander Herzen could speculate in his journal on the essential characteristics of the Germans and the French among whom he lived (never very flattering).  They're exemplified in the old joke about the nature of heaven and hell: Heaven is where the lovers are Italian, the police are English, the mechanics are German, the cooks are French and the place is run by the Swiss. Hell is where the lovers are Swiss, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the police are German and the place is run by the Italians.  Americans are just plain ugly wherever they go, obnoxiously loud and demanding that Cokes and burgers be included in everyone's cuisine.

I’m proud to be an American, 
where at least I know I’m free.
And I won't forget the men 
who died, who gave that right to me.
--Lee Greenwood, "God Bless the U.S.A."

Am I an American?  That's become an uncomfortable question.  I moved away from America, the land of my birth, not only because life for me is easier, cheaper and better now in Thailand, but also because after years as an angry leftist I could only vote with my feet.  "America, love it or leave it," said the bumper sticker in the 1970's.  I left.  If transsexuals can change their gender, why can't I cut patriotic platitudes out of my heart?  They're not me.

I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people,
all just as immortal and fathomless as myself, 
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.) 
--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

I've met backpackers from America who sew Canadian flags on their packs so as to avoid unpleasant questions and accusations. But their accent gives them away.  They can't rhyme "about" with "butte." My mother was Canadian and I once made inquiries to the wife of an embassy official about switching nationalities, but it came to naught.  Here in Bangkok where I hang out, the rare Westerners scarcely look each other in the eyes.  They're traveling  incognito and don't want their cover blown.  There are places where Americans congregate, in search of a passable burger or to debate politics with the Democratic Club, but I steer clear of them.  I didn't even vote for Obama.  The U.S. Embassy doesn't know I'm here.

And yet...  In my visit to California last year I was once again impressed by the beauty of that place.  And the warmth and generosity of my friends was overwhelming.  Everything was familiar and comfortable, and I couldn't wait to leave.  I've claimed much of that country as my own: born in Ohio, grew up in North Carolina and Georgia, matured in California, transplanted to Connecticut and worked in New York City.  My parents retired in Florida where I went to visit many times.  I've traversed the continent from coast to coast several times by car, train and plane.  

While becoming a radical in Berkeley, I marched against the House Committee on Un-American Activities which attempted to perpetuate the red-baiting persecution of McCarthy after he had been discredited.  Their definition of "American" was clearly political, and I would have joined the Communist Party had I'd been able to find a chapter, but they had long gone underground.  I hated the Vietnam War (fortunately my asthma kept me out of it) and found myself on the progressive side of social issues, like abortion and homosexuality.  Most of my friends from high school went in the other direction, and now, over 50 years later, we still avoid political discussions (my Facebook postings are mostly ignored by old acquaintances).  From my perspective, the identity of "American" has been hijacked by politicians from Goldwater to Limbaugh.  Our side didn't fight back, and the label no longer fits.

In the classroom, however, I speak American English.  This school term I'm using an American Headway textbook with the monks who study with me because I want them to know that my pronunciation is different from that of the English spoken by Australians and the British.  As I developed the lesson plans, it occurred to me that I could speak to my students of my ambivalence about being an American in order to show them the malleability and social constructedness of identity.  This is not an easy task since my students know who they are and how they fit in Thai (or Lao, Cambodian, Chinese or Shan) culture.  They do not apparently experience an identity crisis; to disrobe or not is as far as they'll go.  In our discussion this week, all of them, without exception, expressed a preference for living at home in their villages over the bright lights of Bangkok or the appeal of another country.  But as I think of myself as a window on the world they might not otherwise look through, I wanted to show them the questions that are possible.  And I'm doing that through songs, which I mentioned in my last post.  I've collected a load of music about America, both pro and con, and designed exercises to teach them vocabulary in the lyrics.  This week I played "This Land is Your Land" by Peter, Paul and Mary and talked about Woody Guthrie's pro-union politics.  I've got patriotic songs by Greenwood and Neil Diamond, but will also play for them "Buffy Saint-Marie's "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," Tracy Chapman's brutal tale of conquering "America,"  and for a finale, perhaps "Party in the U.S.A.," by Miley Cyrus.  My formative years were spent during the folk song revolution and I continue to think of music as a vehicle for radical and even unpalatable ideas.  

I had a voice for these matters when I lived in Santa Cruz, one of the most progressive cities in America, but despite the support we received for our marches and demonstrations, most residents were too well-off and preoccupied with their personal lives to try and change the direction the country has been moving for many years.  In Arizona or Alabama the right wing is dominant and fighting for peace, justice and a redistribution of the wealth is a real struggle.  In radical Northern California, despite the closing of many public parks and the evisceration of the educational system because of budget cutbacks, life goes on as if the crumbling of the infrastructure and the effort of fighting several wars abroad while cutting back on taxes is normal.  Revolution was not a subject for polite conversations that dealt mainly with sports and entertainment.  Bumper stickers were a substitute for bombs.

It's not easy being a citizen of the world with no flag and no anthem (unless it be "We are the World").  Now without a car, instead of bumper stickers I post comments and links on Facebook and Twitter and those that agree with me nod their digital fingers.  This post, however, was intended to be not about impotence but identity.  I wonder if they are connected?  There's strength in numbers.  Just ask a football fan, or a viewer of "American Idol."  Here in Thailand I am, despite any objections, a farang, an American.  Are we what others see in us?  Much identity is negative -- "At least I'm not one of them!"  The worst racists in America were white trash who comforted themselves with the knowledge that at least they weren't black.  There is always somebody on the bottom.

I tell my students that I love the American land and the American people, but I do not love the U.S. government.  I love the mostly unfulfilled ideals and aims that citizen philosophers put into the various founding documents of America after the English settlers, having rid their territories of the troublesome native people, revolted against the king and the corporations that had paid their way across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean and declared their independence.  What I don't love are the deeds of many Americans that have been uncovered in a history that is all too often the tale of conquest and destruction, of people and nature.  Howard Zinn documented this bloody story in his marvelous People's History of the United States.  I was radicalized as a student when I saw police use fire hoses to sweep protestors at the HUAC hearings down the steps of San Francisco's City Hall.  The hopes I felt after the election of John F. Kennedy were dashed by subsequent administrations from both political parties.  Despite the hopes many people felt in Obama, he has failed that promised.  American today is an Empire, the bully of the world, financed by corporations, directed by a bloated military, that wreaks havoc throughout the globe.  I cannot be an America if it means to represent this government and this history.  

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).
--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Please, may the sun set on the American Empire, the sooner the better.


Janet Brown said...

Honest but superficial--the question you pose proves who you are. This is something only a US-born person would ask--someone whose roots are at best 200 years deep and who always has had the luxury of questioning and arguing and protesting.

I agree that the US is in deep shit on many levels but that ability to question and to work for change still prevails in our country. It's why I'm returning--to ask loud questions and work at meaningful protest.

None of the monks you teach have this particular luxury in their own countries--to ignore that aspect when you tech them about US flaws is to sell your students short and to deny them the recognition of a still-valid truth.

Perhaps the "American" dream is a hallucination--the US is an experiment that may fail. I can understand after a long life of dissent, you may well be exhausted and ready to vote with your feet, as you say. But when you teach, teach as full a truth as you are capable of conveying--and remember not all of your fellow-citizens scream for hamburgers and Cokes.

Anonymous said...

Actually Janet has a point. What government doesn't disappoint? That's what keeps us on our toes, i.e. alive.

And it's probably easier being a global citizen than being one of your monks. Count your blessings.


Anonymous said...

Indeed. As the sun sets on the American century, it rises on the Chinese - and I fear there will be very few voices of dissent allowed in that one.

Thank you for another thoughtful post. Marcus.