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Why I Wore the American Flag on the Fourth July 5, 2013

Posted by soratobuzou in Travel Log.

My childhood as a second generation immigrant was littered with episodes of identity confusion and cultural clashes. Living at the junction of two very different – and often very contradictory – cultures sowed the seeds of my fascination with national identity. Some people, I’m sure, feel more comfortable without a sense of national identity at all, and maybe that is ideal, but for me a sense of national identity is something I feel whether or not I want to. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say I fully understand my relationships to India and the US – I don’t think they are concrete things that can be fully understood – but I did eventually experience a sense of reconciliation with these two equally integral parts of my identity.

But my childhood struggles were just the beginning of a series of crises that have slowly shaped my national identity. For example, as silly as it sounds, I had a mini-crisis when deciding to minor in Japanese. I didn’t really intend to live in Japan long term, so the decision to spend so much time learning its language was a source of cognitive dissonance. What did it mean that I wanted to dedicate so much time to learning a language I had little occasion to encounter in real life? Did I actually want to live in another country long term once I had the chance? Why? Was I dissatisfied with American culture? And if not, why was I bothering? How ought I feel? Did I owe America and India some allegiance that should preclude serious interest in any other culture? Eventually I contented myself with the answer that learning another language is fun mental exercise in itself that doesn’t need further justification.

Then I actually decided to live in Japan for two months. This decision wasn’t nearly as distressing – it made sense that I wanted to take a break from several consecutive semesters of school in a foreign country where I could befriend people I’d have no occasion to meet otherwise, and it made sense that I’d pick a country whose language I could speak relatively fluidly. But as I was packing I did wonder again if I’d ever want to stay in Japan long term.

And the answer was no.

The problem is mainly that Japan’s population is incredibly homogeneous. Although the Japanese people aren’t on the whole belligerent to foreigners, they are unlikely to accept foreigners as their own – even if said ‘foreigner’ was born and raised in Japan. I know Korean students here whose families have been in Japan for several generations and who still don’t have a Japanese passport. (On a side note, Korean victims of the bombings on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were not recognized as such until recently and denied associated health benefits.) Then there is the pervasive assumption that people are foreigners if they don’t look Japanese, even if they may have lived in Japan their whole lives. I understand that it is an inevitable consequence of the incredibly small numbers of foreigners here, but that’s just not an environment I want for my children.

There are things, too – the tendency to suppress individuality, the rigid gender roles, the company culture. None of these are inherently bad, they are just not things that I want to live with long term, and the reason for that is the values that I developed as I was raised in America. Ultimately, it comes down to the simple fact that I feel most at home in American culture.

Somehow, thinking through this inspired in me a moment of incredible fondness for America. It’s hardly perfect – in spite of the diversity of its population, it’s still fighting racism and sexism and all sorts of other unfair discrimination, for one – but no country is perfect. And for now, American is my imperfect country. Will it always be that way? I don’t know, but I packed a shirt with the American flag on it to wear on the fourth.

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