Friday, January 7, 2011

I love/hate being American

Through the looking glass, originally uploaded by scrollwork.
Or how the famous homeless guy and the mannerless fanatics kept changing my mind

There ought to be a wall to walk through for those of us wearing two identities, neither of which fits well at all times. It's become a way of life for naturalized citizens like me to step nimbly from one side to the other as we choose our cultural and political allegiance. More than our culinary preferences, our accents, the frequency of our visits to the homeland, or any aspect of our appearance, the choices we make in these two areas move us along a spectrum of acculturation: Am I feeling more Filipino or more American today?

I remember the exact moment I realized I'd crossed over politically: I heard myself referring to American troops fighting in the Gulf as “our” men and women. I wasn't just parroting how the media called them. These were now indeed "my" people, in that sense, and my country for which they were putting their lives at risk. It took me six years from when the Boeing 747 landed at the San Francisco airport to reach this point. I wasn't sworn in as an American until the following year.

But that’s how it should be, because a ceremony doesn't make you anything. It declares after the fact, publicly and in a way that satisfies lawyers and record keepers, the shift that’s already happened. This applies to the ceremonies that couple or uncouple you, rubberstamp you as educated, accept you into a cult (!), club, church, or sisterhood, and send your vacated shell on the last leg of your eternal journey. By the time the formalities are performed, you are already bonded, torn apart, schooled, initiated or, well, kaput.

Of course, as any naturalized citizen will tell you, what your passport states as your nationality doesn’t shoehorn you into a trussed up box marked, “Do not open.” Pandora’s curious fingers often pry the lid off, and there are endless things to marvel at, things that make you roll your eyes and question if there ever will be enough years, enough experiences, to tip the scales toward your true, preferred identity.

Am I proud to be an American today? Watch:

The Phelps family featured in the video seems to have one discernible mission: Be loudly obnoxious. At military funerals. With signs proclaiming, “Thank God for dead soldiers” and anti-gay sentiments.

Coming as I do from a military family that has buried three of its members, I was infuriated. I was enraged. More to the point, I was incensed by the gaping loophole in the Constitution that has time and again been exploited as the apron to hide behind: freedom of speech.

In a just world, there is a trade that must be made to earn each privilege. Does that world exist only in fairytales? In the pre-Disney version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel allows Ursula to cut off her tongue in exchange for legs to walk among humans. Something for something. How else would you value a privilege?

The Phelps have done nothing to earn the privilege of freedom of speech. They kick the flag along the ground as part of their putrid choreography. Yet, the argument goes that no one can (legally) cut off their tongues.

Cue the roll of eyeballs. Only in America. Transplant this van of blasphemous hicks to the Philippines and they’d be cussed at, at the very least, and lynched, at worst. Bastos. Gago. Ulol. Have at ‘em.

Fortunately, for every rotten thing about America, there is, if you care to look, something redeeming. Like this:

We love redemption stories like this guy’s.

Astoundingly talented but dragged down by his addictions, Ted Williams was reduced to holding up a cardboard sign along an Ohio freeway. It said, “I have a god-given gift of voice. I am an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times. Please! Any help would be appreciated…”

His 90-year-old mother says now that she was shamed by it. Ted seems forgiving that she was skeptical of his dreams. He says he prayed she’d live long enough to see him rebound.

His sign reveals he never forgot the one thing he had going for him: his mellifluous voice. He would sound entrancing reading a phone book. That voice, broadcast by a Columbus Dispatch reporter on a video that went viral, brought an avalanche of endorsement offers and radio guest spots, and appearances on morning and late night TV. And now the world rallies behind him and wants him to succeed.

The caveat to all this hoopla is that the character in every rags-to-riches story needs to hit rock bottom before the public finds his restoration newsworthy and Hollywood finds it filmworthy. In this way, Ted’s story reminds me of the Will Smith film, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a biographical drama about Chris Gardner, a San Francisco homeless salesman turned successful broker. There is one scene that haunts me still. In it, Gardner sits with his son on the floor of a train station men’s room, weeping quietly as someone repeatedly jiggles the lock, then bangs on the other side of the door. They have nowhere else to sleep.

Only in American applies here as well. Only in America, without a caste system, can a person pull himself up by the bootstraps and come back from the abyss.

So am I proud to be an American today? Yes, and no. Ask me tomorrow.

It's "tomorrow." (Actually it's March 2, 2011) And the mannerless, heartless, uncouth protesters won.
Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals
"...the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate, ” according to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority.

I salute the lone dissenting voice.  Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.  wrote, " have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.”