Ex-Expat: On Returning to the U.S.

Recently, my wife and I returned to the United States after living abroad for four years. I’d call myself an ex-expat, except that word doesn’t apply. It’s been clear to me since I returned that I am still an expat, because the country I left 4 years ago no longer exists. Indeed, the United States of America that I grew up in, the country in which I pursued my own life, liberty, and happiness, that nation is no more.

Coming back, I’m not at all certain that the America I thought I knew and loved ever existed. The ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ vision I once held, the rah-rah, yankee-doodle image propagated at every opportunity, that image it turns out, was a vaseline-lens, aspirational, too-good-to-be-true America. Sad to say, it was mostly, it appears, a sham.

In third grade, as I faced the stars and stripes, hand over heart, chanting the pledge of allegiance by rote, I thought I was announcing my loyalty to a country that truly did offer ‘liberty and justice for all,’ that anyone wishing to vote with their feet to bring their wretched refuse of other lands’ teeming shores to this America, to my bold and glorious America, those people would be welcomed, cherished, and included.

Looking around on my return today I still see American flags posted in prominent spots. But in the tiki-torch demonstrations by ignorant white supremacists, the fiery oppositional marches by low-life bigots, the blatant hypocrisy by so called christian groups, the hatred, and the rejection of ‘others’, I now understand that the final word of that pledge, the simple word ‘all’ has a lot of wiggle room, a lot of exceptions. Instead of living up to its shining creed of inclusion, and acceptance, and love of diversity, I see America denouncing its glowing aspirations, and disdaining the vaulted meaning of that pledge. It makes me sad. It makes me angry, too, partly that I allowed myself to be deluded for so long, and partly because it doesn’t have to be this way, and should not be this way.

Looking at America from afar, in my case from Medellin Colombia, gave me a perspective and insight not many Americans ever see. My view from far away allowed me to view the U.S. for what it really is. That is, a country that’s admired, feared, hated, and loved, that is confusing, disgusting, disappointing, and astonishing, often all at the same time. But one way I never imagined looking at my home country was with sorrow. And I never expected people in other countries to look at the U.S. and feel pity, but that’s a common feeling today. That perspective, the reality that other nations pity the U.S. simply never occurred to me. That, too, makes me angry. It does not have to be this way. It should not be this way.

My recent return to the U.S. is similar in many ways to another repatriation many years ago, when I came home from Vietnam. Just as in 1971, I came back to the U.S. from a poor, tropical country with a recent experience of civil chaos. Likewise, Vietnam and Colombia are both countries that had been exploited by the U.S. under the guise of liberation. Then as now I entered an America polarized and torn by turmoil, with demonstrations in public streets, an erosion of trust in civil institutions, facing an uncertain future, and with feckless, tone-deaf leadership that ignores our basic, or at least our stated values.

There was a kind of virus in 1971 as well. The tension and strife back then was a poison in our lives, a pall on daily activity much like the virus that now seeps its venom into all of our lives—and for some people just as deadly. We had a daily body count then as well. At that time in America’s history the unrest was centered on the war in South Asia. The Vietnam War forced us to take sides, to identify as one or the other, either pro war, or against, and with similarly bracketed slogans: On one side, ‘America, love it or leave it!’; ‘Make love, not war,’ on the other. There were symbols then, either masks or hardhats, and both became weaponized.

Independence day will soon be here. The 4th of July will be celebrated as always in the U.S., albeit under strange and restrictive measures. There is talk of cancellations, and virtual fireworks displays, and reruns of previous years’ celebrations as substitutes for the here and now amid the coronavirus pandemic. There will be the usual rah-rah, bang the drum, stars & stripes jingoism that always accompanies the 4th. The forced expressions of loyalty, patriotism, and pride in country, despite numerous timely and important challenges to the national narrative. There will be all of the superficial and shallow expressions of solidarity, the Lee Greenwood version of pride in country that gets trotted out at the drop of a red, white, and blue boater in early July all across America.

But here’s the thing: Despite our inability to gather in large groups this 4th of July, this year’s Independence Day celebrations will carry another kind of virus, the germ of a long delayed but better vision, a truer purpose of our pursuit of national ideals we’ve expressed collectively for 244 years. This year, with a different kind of demonstration in the streets, with stronger and more persistent calls for a return to our basic, stated values seem to be ascendent. The demand for inclusion and regard from our Black Lives Matter brethren; demands for new leadership against our current void of it; angry voices calling for that proffered equality check to be cashed, this time with sufficient funds.

Those calls may actually be heeded this time, and maybe, just maybe, the America I thought I saluted all those years ago in third grade, maybe that America can truly rise to its stated purpose, its documented vision.

This my recent repatriation to the United States really could be different. It’s possible I could see the values we’ve always claimed to honor put into practice: Those values are not complicated; they’re not wrapped in obtuse, legalistic language; they’re not difficult to understand, hell a third grader spoke and understood them, and that youngster was so proud.

Liberty and justice for all. Maybe this time. Maybe this expat, this time, after only 244 years will finally see those words mean something. And maybe, this time, this America could be a place worth returning to.

Thanks for reading, and happy Independence Day.