Since it is that day of the year when many, nay most, Americans are waving flags and eating hot dogs, standing in the sweltering heat to watch the parades go by on Main Street, drinking beers by the pool or on the beach, feeling proud to be "free"... since it is that day in July when the country boasts about how great it is to be independent and free in the land of the brave. Since it is the 4th of July, Independence Day, I will do as my mother suggested and write about my childhood which was decidedly unconventional and UN-american, and which explains how I came to be the nay-sayer party pooper of Flag and Country hoopla that I am today.
I am American. Born in Los Angeles, California to American parents. American english was my first language. At the age of 4, however, my thrill seeking, romantic writer of a mother decided to move us to Paris, France. What was intended to be a summer house exchange turned into the first 3 years of my quick transformation from an American white girl into a francophile mutt. Furthermore, the bulk of those first 3 years in Paris were spent living in a predominantly Chinese/Vietnamese/Cambodian neighborhood. My best friend in 1st grade was Chinese. So, there I was, a minority iby virtue of being from the United States, and also not Chinese. I remember dinners at Ho Yans house with her parents who only spoke Chinese, eating their traditional meals, fascinated by the way they slurped their noodles into their mouths using the chopsticks like pointy shovels. Ho Yan and I gave each other lessons in each others languages... can't say that it stuck, but it was a valiant effort.
My mother recalls dropping me off for my first day in a public french school, 1st grade. I didn't speak French yet, but off I went. Full immersion. I vaguely remember sitting in that classroom, a bit nervous... but, very vaguely. Again, my mother recalls that by the end of that week, I was speaking French fluently. Studies show the benefits of knowing multiple languages, to which I can attest. There are some funny idiosyncrasies, though, that developed in me as a result of having spoken English first, but schooled in French for the first 8 years of my education. It made for some blurring of linguistic lines in my head. I will sometimes speak a French word with an American accent in an English conversation, for example. Or, I will use a colloquial expression in the wrong language that doesn't exist except in the other language. If that makes any sense at all…
What this had already done to me culturally by the age of 8 is release me from the bondage of clinging to a nationality. I was a floater, a migrant in both of my homes, whether in the US or in France. In France, I didn't look like a French kid. I was larger, big boned some might say, and though I was white, I just stood out. I didn't have that French je-ne-sais-quoi about me. In the States, I was a kid who could write in French better than I could in English. We did move back to the US when my mother ran out of the means to keep paying Parisian rents without a work visa. From then on, we were back and forth. In the US for a year until my mother saved up funds, or until she couldn't stand to be here anymore and longed for her adored Paree... In both places, we would land in various culturally diverse neighborhoods. Probably the most memorable was our time living in "La Goutte D'Or" near the Chateau Rouge Metro station. Almost entirely African and Arab immigrants. The French police would raid and harass and arrest people on the streets regularly. Line them up against a wall, search them... this I witnessed as I would be walking our dog around the block or walking home from school. I definitely stood out there, blond and blue-eyed, prepubescent girl with too much spunk for her own good. Many French Parisians wouldn't feel comfortable in that neighborhood at that time (I understand it has since been gentrified and become the hip place to live), but it was a community. I lived in that community and it took care of me. There was a nice Arab grocer who ran the corner store who kept a watchful eye. The culture there was so rich and vibrant, African markets with exotic fruits and vegetables, spices, grains, fabric stores filled with the colorful patterned fabrics that the Afircan women turned into elaborate dresses and head garments... on Farmer's Market days the street would be jam packed, the most impressive to me were always the women who would carry cases of open egg cartons on their heads, or huge baskets full of produce, usually with an infant swaddled to the chest.
In that era, my best friend was Senegalese. Nabou and I became sisters, soul sisters. Though we have been on different continents now for our whole adult lives, we are still sisters and connect as best as we can being busy mothers with careers and passions pulling us in a million directions. Nabou's apartment was one of the warmest and most joyous homes I had ever known, and that despite their incredible struggles. Nabou's parents migrated to France from Senegal leaving their first 2 children with grandparents in their village. They couldn't afford to bring them. They would send money back to Senegal, and save as much as they could. They had more children born in Paris, Nabou included. Sometime, not too long after I became friends with Nabou, her parents had finally saved enough to bring their oldest son and daughter to France. So, at the age of 9 (I could be fuzzy on the details here), Nabou met her siblings for the first time. Then, there were 7 of them living in a very small two room apartment. Yet, their place was far from bleak. I only ever remember showing up there to laughter and smiles, Nabou's beautiful mother always making huge amounts of incredible dishes with lots of spice, fish you'd never heard of steamed in banana leaves... and you had to partake, she wouldn't have it any other way. I adored their home and all of them. Still do.
It wasn't until High School that I switched from the French school system to American...and, it definitely was a pivotal gear shift. It was 7-8th grade...who's to say whether it was the puberty wreaking havoc or the schooling style that kind of caused me to derail, but something did. It was also the one period of my life where my mother had decided it was time to "settle down". Built a house with a literal white picket fence in Ashland, OR. The "All American Dream". It didn't last. There were many extenuating circumstances that are tales better left for another time or untold altogether, suffice it to say, the dream house in the suburbs of a quaint American town did not make all our difficulties disappear and render us happy go lucky. Wasn't for lack of trying though, gotta give my mother that…...
The trajectories continued, never settling in any one place for too too long... by the time I was 16, I had pulled myself out of school (the French schools wouldn't have me back after my American schooling, by the way) and finished high school by correspondance through the University of Nebraska while living in Paris. I wanted it over and done with, I wanted to get to college and pursue my passion for theatre and performance. Which is where my story first lands us in Vermont, the Green Mountain State. I fell in love with this rural landscape and knew it was where I would one day finally settle and take root.
So what is the point of all that? Not sure how I got into such a chronological retelling of the geographic sweeps of my early years, but the point was to show how it all evolved into shaping my ideology around the concept of "country". To me there is no "country", there are no borders except the ones drawn on maps defined at some point in history by some group of governing people/men based on their egotistical belief that because they have arrived there, and probably massacred people they felt were in the way, that gives them reason to claim that chunk of earth as theirs. Stab the soil with a pole and raise a flag to show everyone how important you are for having claimed ownership over this particular place on the globe. It's nonsense. To me, it is shear and total murderous nonsense. The earth belongs to no one or everyone, equally. The flag to me represents all the lives lost so that a group of people can feel justified stuffing their faces and getting a buzz on in the name of God. Country and God have nothing to do with one another and yet man has intertwined them inexplicably. I refuse to participate. I may seem like a real Debbie Downer (poor Debbie, where does that expression come from??), but I simply cannot pretend that the whole notion of celebrating ownership over stolen blood soaked land just makes me sick. Maybe I seem self righteous? That's funny, isn't it, when it's pretty self righteous to claim you have more of a right to exist in a specific place than any other person. I know, animals are territorial. Dogs piss to mark "their" territory. Lions, chimpanzees, whales... I have seen my roosters and male rabbits fight sometimes to draw blood... and, humans are animals... but, aren't we supposed to have the higher conscience that guides us to know right from wrong? Morals? Ethics? What is righteous about hoarding geographic regions and denying others access?
Nothing. It's nonsense.
(as the fireworks go off in the distance...)
*thanks mom for correcting all my grammatical glitches ;)