In our growing-up years, we lived far away from other Americans. Our American schools were 1+ hours from the house (longer if there was a “stau” on the autobahn). We lived so far from the nearest American community, that it would have taken all day to pedal my bike up and down the Neckar valley to pop over to a friend’s for a game of Twister or Family Feud.
We didn’t socialize much – even around holidays and culturally American festivals.
Thanks to our neighborhood, we did learn a lot about Fasching (Mardi Gras) and the German affection for New Year’s fireworks. Our Jewish neighbors, Herr und Frau Thuy, invited us into their traditions of faith – a faith protected as treasure among Czech prisoners of war in places with names like Skrochowitz or Theresienstadt. We learned about marzipan and firecrackers and solemn days.
Our Turkish bus driver, Shahin, exposed us to his Muslim faith in that he’d stop for prayers if traffic had backed up along the journey home. He was funny and devout and would not let the bus route interfere with his gentle conversations with Allah. If we were lucky, he’d stop at the fountain in Esslingen for mineral water and ice cream. Really.
In all of this, I always wondered why there was no bunting and parades along the Neckar heralding our day of Independence.
Born in that former penal colony known now as “Georgia, USA”, I come from people who have fought for the freedoms they treasure. These were not wealthy landowners, but hard-working farmers and merchants whose red necks spoke of days tilling and plowing or scrambling up the Georgia Power lines. I did not know these people to hate. My dad is a career soldier. His dad was a lineman for the power company. The other side is represented by a teacher and small-town doctor known for his accessibility and great kindness.
But my brother and sisters and I grew up – in large part – among Stuttgart suburbs and hamlets adjoining the Neckar and (later) Donau rivers. There were benefits of living deep in “the economy” as we called off-post housing. Our lumbering school bus crossed the Porsche test tracks daily and we’d sometimes catch glimpse of a speeding concept car. We learned first-hand about orchards and shepherds and bakeries and butchers and small-town European life. Our ethnocentric assumptions were challenged by very loving German, Turkish, and “who-knows” neighbors who were gracious and curious in their kindnesses.
By the time we left Altbach for a short return to the United States, we, kids, had made friends with our (mostly) older neighbors through the ordinary encounters of daily walking three dogs. We were a scrabbley quartet of oddkins – even for American neighborhoods and these folks befriended us in our rough and tumbling edges.
I can only speak for myself, but the years and the intergenerational relationships with people who had once been America’s enemies changed me. My love of country is no less than most. Friendship with people whose lives and faith and experiences are so different than mine only made me respect others’ patriotism – never diminishing my own.
No longer do I see patriotism as a win/lose equation; “we’re #1 and the rest of you are losers.”
Especially in America, our national identity is so influenced by the mass migrations our forebears made to this country. Unless you are Native American, your American family line involved immigration, courage, fear, and starting over as a foreigner in an unknown land.
You and I were once newbies here. Someone came before us and planted their hopes and sweat on American soil – American red clay. The shawarma, pho, kolaches, pirogues, and sushi you enjoy are not native to this land. Your popcorn and baked beans, however, are native to people of the land. Lucky you.
My point: celebrate, whoop it up, make merry, BBQ, ooh and aah over the beauty that is this celebration of American independence and the many many cultures represented in its people. Remember the Everyday DerringDo of the people who came before you and the people who come now to this country in search of America.
We’re America – an imperfect and manifold nation – and we’re better together.