Like many Americans, I was raised to believe this was the best country in the entire world. We were the land of the free and the home of the brave. The American dream was real. We did everything right and everyone wanted to be one of us. We had integrity and always stepped in to save the rest of the world when things hit the fan. We are number one!
At the same time, I was taught that all things that came from Europe were vastly superior. French wine was the best. Everyone in Europe dressed better than we did, and had much more style. The food was better. The architecture was more beautiful. They had a lot more history than we do (since we feel that Native American history doesn’t count), and that meant they were more legitimate than we were. To be clear, no one ever taught me those same things about Asia or Africa or Latin America or anywhere else for that matter. Europe was special.
It was a rather complex dichotomy, feeling as though we were the best and yet not quite good enough at the same time. As a child I didn’t give it very much scrutiny. I just knew that both things were true. Indoctrination never occurred to me at the time.
When I was 19 and in college, I met a fellow student who was from the Netherlands, and I instantly assumed that she was about 1000% cooler than I would ever be. She was definitely more beautiful and more popular. We became fast friends. I considered her my best friend for many years. But as it has always been in my life, the title was never reciprocated in any way. We did, however, exchange 30 page letters with each other when she moved back to Holland in that time before Internet. I have a big box of her letters in my attic as we speak. As we built our lives, we had less time for that.
I was definitely very interested in keeping up with her, because I was convinced that just by dint of being who she was, she was going to lead this amazing, happy, successful life and reach heights that I could never imagine reaching. I settled back and assumed I would spend a lifetime living vicariously through her “fantasticness”. She came to visit me and I went to visit her.
But I was pretty naive in my freshman year in college, about politics and American history and world history in general. So, every once in a while, when my friend would say something derogatory, it would shock me. One time, we went to Disney World together and one of the attractions that we entered was that animatronic love letter to America, the Hall of Presidents. (Check out this disturbing video of it from when Trump was president here.) I left feeling patriotic. She left feeling stunned and creeped out. At the time I didn’t get it.
Now I do. We Americans are over the top with our “rah, rah, rah” and our “America first” and our pride. Our patriotic ravings make it sound like we are the brainwashed subjects of a military dictatorship. And now that I’ve seen how ugly that can get, thanks to Trump, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enter that Hall of Presidents again without squirming.
She and I also went to the ballet once. It was my first ballet ever, in fact, and also my last. Afterward, she was so critical of the performance that it made me cry because I had loved it, and now I felt stupid and uncultured. She also criticized our chocolate and our peanut butter and our cheese and our bread. It seems we Americans eat pig food.
She even criticized the way I spoke English several times. As if it were her first language and she therefore had the authority to judge. One time I remember using the phrase “in any case” and her head nearly exploded. Back then I was hurt and confused and assumed that she must be right about my inability to speak decent English, because she was a cool multi-lingual European. Now I realize that as much as I loved her, she wasn’t always a very nice person. Just like the rest of us. She was human. Imagine that!
When I told her that I was of Danish, French and Irish descent, she said that all Americans were, basically, mutts, and that she was just Dutch. That’s it. At the time I didn’t realize that throughout history, Holland was overrun by Celts and Romans and Spaniards and French and many other tribes and nationalities, and that the Dutch also got up to all manner of shenanigans as they forcefully colonized the planet. I’m now quite sure that she is every bit the mutt that I am, whether she knows it or not.
She also, of course, criticized America’s history, for good reason. In fact, I probably have her to thank for starting me on the path of political awareness, as painful as I found it at the time. But over the years I’ve been amused, in a bittersweet way, to discover that the Dutch were no shining beacon of moral rectitude, either.
I recently read this article entitled, “‘I’ll be at front of queue to change my slave name’”, about the descendants of slaves in Holland finally being able to change their condescending slave surnames without having to pay an outrageous fee to do so, and about how the Dutch were in the slave trade for more than 3 centuries and shipped more than a half million Africans across the Atlantic, and that racism still abounds there, just as it does here.
That article is what prompted me to write this post. It made all the memories come flooding back. The indoctrination of my childhood. The feeling of inferiority of my young adulthood. All of it.
We definitely had a friendship. I have many fond memories, and I miss her to this day. But she hasn’t responded to my emails in years. I suspect it had something to do with my crowdfunding campaign when I needed help to move to the west coast. She participated, for which I’m extremely grateful, but we haven’t really spoken since. And while she has come to America several times, she no longer bothers to visit me or reach out in any way. I’m not sure why this had to happen, but it’s a shame, because I think she’d like me more now. I know I do.
The rose-colored glasses that I used to wear while looking at my country have fallen apart from lack of use. I know we are a country that tortures and incarcerates without due process. We make wars for reasons that have nothing to do with honor and everything to do with profit. We stole this land. We built it up on the backs of slaves. We are racist and sexist and violent, and I think, as a society, we are losing our collective mind.
Yes, there are also good things about this country, and mostly I’m glad I live here. I honestly believe that the truest form of patriotism is through criticism. I want this country to succeed, and I know in my heart that it can and must do better, and I encourage it to do so. There’s no greater love than that. People that think that blind devotion and unquestioning loyalty are the only ways to demonstrate a true love of country are deluded and, frankly, dangerous to democracy.
I’m also well-traveled enough now to find Europe amazing and fun, but not superior. Just delightfully different. There are just so many different and equally valid ways to live in the world. I would still admire a lot of things about my friend, but I’d be capable, now, of calling bullshit when her own brand of arrogance comes to the fore.
The ultimate irony is that my life, despite all predictions, has turned out to be pretty darned amazing. I’m quite happy with it. I wish she knew that and took part in it.
I have no idea how my friend feels about her life. The last few contacts we had led me to believe that she wasn’t particularly content. I guess I’ll never know, now. That makes me sad. I do wish her well.
The bottom line is that we’re both humans. We each have our flaws and our wonderful bits. And it’s safe to assume that when we first met, we both still had a lot of growing up to do.
Hooray for growth! Three cheers for enlightenment! And thanks for the memories. I wish there could be more of them. I’d be open to it. But nothing in life should be forced.
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