by Betsy Ashton
Until you've lived in a different country, you don't know how free freedom can be. Or how patriotic you can be. This post is all about me and what I learned about myself after living in a different country for two years.
Cast yourself back to 1969 to 1971. The war in Vietnam continued to divide the country. Patriotism wasn't cool. Drugs were. Protests were. Whether your cause was feminism, the war, civil rights or not believing parental authority, you had something that tied your gut in knots.
For me, it was getting into the grad school of choice. I planned to do a Masters overseas. I applied to two programs. What luck! I got into both. What bad luck! My first choice university was on strike and would continue to be on strike for two years. Phooey. Accepted admission to my fallback school.
With a naivete that shocks me today, I packed a trunk, consigned it to a shipping company, and bought a one-way ticket to Japan. I was so cool. A total hippie from Southern California. I was tall. Long brown hair. And I was an Anglo. I was also an American with a certain arrogance that came with citizenship.
Nothing says far from home like dropping yourself into a homogeneous country. I walked down the stairs from my Pan Am jet with this reaction. "OMG, they're all Japanese." What did you think, stupid? They'd be just like you?
I became a stranger in a strange land. I didn't come home for two years. In that time, I set foot on "American" soil six times, two at the US Embassy where I went to vote and try to find out information about a friend who went missing in Vietnam (that's fodder for a different blog). Four times on a US Air force base. See previous sentence for reason.
It wasn't until I was on a ship coming home from my MA program that I realized how much I missed being an American. Being surrounded by Americans. Miss our societal warts and stretch marks. When the ship pulled into Honolulu harbor at midnight, I joined a group of other homesick travelers and marched arm in arm around the ship singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful" and other songs of longing and belonging.
I all but kissed the ground when we were finally released for twenty-four hours on the town. I walked everywhere I could, so proud to be home where I could really breathe freely.
This is not to say that Japan doesn't feel free. It does. But as a gaijin, you can never assimilate. And you know at ever turn in the road, every staring eye, that someone knows you don't really belong.
I didn't decide to fly Old Glory in front of my house until 9/11. For some reason, all those feelings of belonging rushed back. I was home-sick this time for what had befallen our nation. But like that long-ago naive foreign student, our nation found its balance and moved ahead. It's what we do.