22 July 2003
are you American?
John was down this past week for a few days. Tuesday we went down to South Street, and like every time before we went into the Book Trader. I haven't been in there since last year, it's funny how I always end there in the summer, browsing among the dusty stacks. It's always very quiet and cool, the muffled sounds of the street below. I found myself such a nice seat next to a floor to ceiling window overlooking South Street, I sat and read The Handmaid's Tale for a long time. Every time the floor creaked near me, I looked up, sure it was John coming to find me. I finally gave up and went down to the first floor, where I found him in a chair reading, presumably waiting for me.
I hate how the moment I enter a bookstore, all the books that I want immediately fly out of my head. But I did pick up a gently loved hardcover copy of The Handmaid's Tale for Olive as a late birthday present. The three of us got together a couple weeks ago and I was surprised to learn that she had never read it; I mean, it seemed right up her alley: sex, politics, women, religion.
I went home and read my paperback copy. Not read, but swallowed whole. It's one of those books, I've read it four or five times, but it never fails to entrall me. I have to space out my readings a bit, now give it a year or so, let me forget it a bit, so I can read it again, fresh.
The events in the book don't seem so far-fetched as they once did. Not that I'm saying the President and Congress will be machine-gunned, the Constitution suspended and women stripped of all their rights as human beings, but still...the Patriot Act? The pro-life agenda? Not very far-fetched at all.
It's all strange and frightening. I'm restraining myself from pestering Olive via email for her opinion. I figure I'll give her a good week to at least finish the book.
God, this country is so...I don't even know how to describe it anymore. Now, for me, it goes so far beyond me hating Bush, or SUVs, or Jay Leno (though I still do, on all three counts). I guess going abroad for a length of time affords you a perspective on America that you wouldn't have otherwise. It's been said many times, but Americans are ridiculously myopic. We are such a vast country; everything we need is within our boundaries. Kind of like Manhattan...why bother with the outer boroughs, really?
Even in England and Scotland, we were told, say you're Canadian. Don't say you're American. Even in a country that we are allied to. It was bizarre. I didn't really run into any anger directed towards Americans, or anything directed towards my nationality at all (with the exception of a very chatty Scotsman my first night in Glasgow; he was very impressed that I was American and at the end of the night asked me for a "wee cuddle"). So I guess I am now even more confused about what it means for me to be American.
I guess I am uncomfortable with the label. To me, it's just not that I come from the one of the fifty states, it's all the stereotypes that come with "American", stereotypes that I ran into headlong while in the UK: we all eat McDonalds, all we care about it money, we all drive big cars, we're all loud, we all voted for George W. Bush, we are all massively ignorant to what's happening outside our borders. They are stereotypes, but it's not something I really want to be part of. But then, there are stereotypes for every other country too, like the English all drink tea, have bad teeth and are snobs (okay, so maybe they all do drink tea).
Maybe it's the size that staggers me, it's hard to love something this diverse and enormous. No one loves the guy that's the king of the hill, that's ordering everyone below him around. Or maybe it's because since September 11th everyone been telling me how I should be loving my country. Hang your flag. Say the Pledge of Alligeance. Trust that the people upstairs know what they're doing. Maybe I just want to figure it out for myself how I want to be an American, instead of having patriotism shoved down my throat. Ironic that this whole freedom of choice thing was what we started with in the first place.
When I was in Scotland, I didn't miss America, but I did. Everything was just a little bit off, enough to make me miss driving on the right side of the road and bars that stayed open past eleven. It's the little things we miss, because ultimately we are creatures of habit. Stay anywhere long enough, and you eventually get used to it, and even the things that annoy you and piss you off become precious in their absence.That's what made me miss home so much in my last week in Glasgow. So I went home, and things were much the same, and soon I was sick of them. Or sick of myself, maybe.
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