I come from a town famous for producing expatriates. Our walk of fame is like a collection of memorials for those who turned their back on the city, the state, the country; a kind of expression of acknowledging disappointment, and catalysm:
We are the place that drove them away (to greatness).
Oh yes, this planted the seed in me, as well. I am an American. What I mean by that is, really, that I was born here, and I am familiar with ways of thinking and behaving in particular parts of the country to such an extent that, when I am not in those environments, I become aware of how thoughtlessly I maneuver in them. Which is interesting given the fundamental statement of my life: I don't fit in.
When I was small, I knew I didn't fit in. Even among people who didn't fit in, I didn't fit in. As I got older, I got more defiant about it (I had to feel better, you know) and became sort of belligerent and aggressive about not fitting in. Then it became national. I realized all the books I liked, the music I liked--it all came from other places. I knew that anyway, but then a foreign exchange student ended up in most of my classes, and most of the classmates were sort of afraid of her, but I was not, before I knew her because she was from a country I had always wanted to know more about. Driving around one day, she starting singing along to one of my tapes. I said, "how do you know that song?!" and she replied that it had been on the radio endlessly when it had been released. I hit the brakes. Surely you're joking, I cried! NO ONE HERE KNOWS THAT SONG! Oh no, she said, we all knew it. It was very popular.
That was it.
That was when I knew.
I was going to be an expatriate. ASAP.
It took me several years before I made it away from the USA for the first time, and within 24 hours I had realized something that utterly disrupted my way of thinking:
I didn't fit in outside of America, either.
I didn't quite know how to take this. I felt like a total outsider, such a foreigner, lost and confused. I longed to be back "home" (I grimaced as I said that) where I didn't have to think about how I was communicating with people, or worry that I might be recognized as a foreigner, just to be silent and unrecognized, not waiting to do the wrong thing every second and be immediately spotted--American. Because of course that can be--and was in my own eyes--a very bad thing to be. I tried to erase my American-ness. And I achieved a modest victory. With time no one could spot me anymore, even when I talked. And yet...
I could never escape myself. I was still foreign and I knew it. I could never entirely push that out of my mind. And so I went back "home." To find that I fit in even less. I walked around the airport, just off the plane, looking at my countrymen in their baseball hats (and I love baseball hats, by the way), and thinking, I am not one of you. I am not one of you. Of whom am I one?
I had hated America. Then I lived elsewhere and realized everywhere has its problems, and suddenly I didn't hate America so much anymore...I felt like it was a place, like any other place loved and hated. Looking at it from outside gave me a perspective I can never describe. It was sometimes like looking at a loved one lying in a hospital, and it was sometimes like peeking in at paradise. I missed it, either way. And then I went back and hated it again. For a while. But I began to develop a new role in it: You're-all-bumpkins-and-I-know-better. It was obnoxious, it was pretentious. It was the result of being told all my life that America is a place where stupid backward illiterate uncultured people live. But I had been to Europe as an American who was not stupid, backward, illiterate, and perhaps less uncultured than, say, many of my relatives (and had encountered people in Europe who did not correspond to the American ideal of Europeans...). I was a little confused over where the problem began, but I took it upon myself to use both sides of the equation: Americans are not as stupid as we tell ourselves we are, so that is no excuse for, say, not learning a foreign language; and then our perspective can be a little narrow. So try something new.
This had more of a dark side than I found I could stand, there was a tendency among people I worked with to swing too extremely to one side: all things American are inferior, shallow, to be avoided; non-American is automatically superior. They prefer not see themselves as "American," try to conceal their origins, overplay the role of the sophisticate. Eventually I came to wonder what they themselves understood "American" to mean. Obviously more than "I was born here, and I understand the behavior."
Fast forward to a few years ago, when a colleague observed me and then timidly posed the question:
You don't fit in here, do you.
Why don't you move to Europe? You are much more European. You would fit much better there.
I blinked at her, because suddenly I had begun to think something quite new, actually I had known it all along but I had never articulated it before.
Me: Well, in Europe I don't fit. And in the US I don't fit either. But I am more familiar with being a misfit here, and anyway, who said I am aiming to fit in anywhere?
I know a lot of people who can take being an expat much better than I can. And I know a lot of people who identify themselves with an American way of life that makes no sense to me whatever. I do not wish to comment on politics, but like my friend singing that song in my car, the last election was for me the moment of clarity.
I have to stay here and not fit in.
I have found that I make a difference everywhere that way--when I live abroad and when I live here. I do not defend my position as superior, I do not think other people are wrong. This is my way of being the voice and the silence of dissent.
This is what happens when you die. And that is what happens when they die.
We have our ways.