I almost picked the line “for purple mountain majesties,” as a nod to my undergrad alma mater, but realized “from sea to shining sea” also neatly evokes my east-to-west coast transplant this summer (San Francisco-bound!). So there.
Somewhere midway through college, I decided I didn’t want to live in the US post-graduation. It was definitely reactionary: in part I must have subconsciously believed that if I left the country altogether I wouldn’t be subject to the mediocrity of the suburban American dream, white picket fence, two and a half kids, and intellectually challenging upper-middle class job inclusive. Was terrifying; still is.
The other parts of my “decisive feeling” are somewhat more nebulous. I recall a conversation between some study abroad coursemates midway through our year in England. We were work-weary and they missed the US. England was quaint but small; the US suggested a vaster sweep, more lands to adventure. I remember not being able to sympathize at all. I liked England a lot, and as for the US being big—both in physical space and the “big kid on the block”—that I saw as a con. It seemed a metaphor for a certain kind of innate superiority Americans hold (I don’t mean said classmates). For example: if someone doesn’t speak English well, they must be inferior. If someone doesn’t speak French well, or Korean well, they might be American. I didn’t like the US’s capaciousness and supposed largesse, and I felt neutral about “being American”: didn’t particularly like it, and sometimes actively disliked it.
I’m still discomfited by my American national identity, perhaps locatable through a few different angles. First, perhaps, is the educated, quasi-liberal skeptic in me that equates flag-waving patriotism with uneducated, unthinking demagoguery (illustrated poignantly to somewhat of a different end by Anne Fadiman in “A Piece of Cotton”; a recommended read). Another is that no one thinks of Mirai Nagasu when they think “American”: they think Ashley Wagner. (It’s weird to say this, but I really think that’s part of why I don’t think of myself as “American” either.) Its other practices of more blatant racial bigotry and violence are no less troubling.
Yet another is that I simply have not yet figured out what it means to be a good citizen: to care for and steward well the beauty and resources and democratic ideals of my country. What does it mean to be a citizen, to love my country and my neighbor? At a time of such civil unrest and social injustice, amid egoistic demagoguery and seeming lack of real leadership. such a question seems particularly poignant and puzzling. I’ve woken up nearly every morning this summer to news that makes me sad and angry: this morning, it was Fort Myers. Yes, it happened again. I should probably vote more. Maybe I should post political convictions on Facebook. But there must be more.
No spoiler here: I’m still living in the US at present, and plan to stick around for the mid-range term, if not the long-term (though an overseas jaunt is always a welcome option). With the kind of eudaimonia (fancy Greek word for “human flourishing”) work I want to do, the US seems the best option for further work and study. I want to try to figure out, then, what it means to be a good citizen, and this blogpost is an envisioning attempt—and an open call for ideas, if anyone has any.
Here are some possibilities that come to mind for me. I’m quite literally brainstorming ideas onto a page: Things I Want to Try to Do to Be A Better American.
1. Find reasons to love the US, whether big or small. This one is important, I think, because my default is to critique all the parts of the US that are broken. My proud North Carolinian friend loves sweet tea and blue mountains and Dolly Parton; I know I don’t like Skippy peanut butter and feel pretty neutral about t-swift but I’ll work on finding things specific and locatable to love. I’ll also work on better understanding what ideals like freedom and justice and democracy mean in practice, because these wonders too are part of the immigrant’s American dream.
2. Read the news gratefully, because free press shouldn’t be taken for granted. Yes, politicized rants on Facebook(/the New Yorker/Atlantic/etc.) don’t always seem a glory of democracy, but on Wechat, the social media platform most used in China, posts critical of the government are regularly deleted and its authors sometimes harassed. Conventional media censorship is worse. Last week, for instance, as many as 300 people died in the northern Hebei province of flooding due to government oversight, and there’s hardly any press coverage of it/social media posts are removed. I can’t imagine life without the First Amendment, and too often take it for granted.
3. Make community with non-yuppies. I realize that at this point in my life I’m not so much separated by race/gender/etc. as I am by socioeconomic class and educational attainment. It’s very strange that I have no friends who aren’t working professionals of some stripe or other. None! One possibility I’ve researched briefly: City Church of SF runs a resource center in the Tenderloin, a disenfranchised neighborhood of a rapidly gentrifying/gentrified city. I don’t have salvific hopes for any role I might have, but think it may be important at the very least to see and hear the stories of citizens whose lives are worlds away from mine. Otherwise, what does it mean that they are my countrywo/men?
4. Get involved in some part of the political process—I don’t mean campaigning for anyone, because yuck though #NeverTrump. I’m thinking something perhaps more on the small-scale of this resource sheet (“What You Can Do Right Now About Police Brutality”), though I’d prefer something that connects me to local activism/activists. (If anyone has ideas, please let me know!) I am least practiced in this arena so have the fewest ideas for action steps, though I’m cognizant of its importance.
5. Pray for a people who God loves. There is much evil and suffering in our country—dare I add “also in our hearts and homes”? The religious, Christian vision of humankind attests that we are fundamentally selfish, greedy, and false, and make our world as such (c.f. US politics, police brutality, systemic racism, shootings of police officers, mass shootings, growing income inequality, etc.). But the capacity for transformation and redemption is yet greater and grander, unimaginably so. Let us pray earnestly, then, for Christmas—the coming of Christ—and the end of the White Witch’s reign. (That was a Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe reference, if you missed it.)
I would love to pray with others, by the way—so if you are interested, drop a line. I’m also very interested in doing #3 and #4 with others in SF, who obviously are allowed to be nonreligious. (Also happy to try the latter with one nonreligious: “I’m not sure if you exist but here’s something of an attempt at prayer anyway” totally counts as a start.)
My resolution, then, is to love my country better, actionably and prayerfully; to be pro-American in the best sense possible in this time of turbulence. I’d love to hear your ideas for how.
I should cite my sources of inspiration for this article: Caleb and Yue-Yi’s recent posts for the Kairos, the many Facebook posts of solidarity following the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile police shootings, and my wonderful (now out of touch) friend S’s excellent Facebook post about action steps following said shootings. The header American flag photo is pulled from a Pinterest page.