It wasn’t my first lie. It wasn’t the first time that I went along with what society wanted me to say and do, but it was the most public and prepared lie that I had ever committed. I was ashamed. I was even more ashamed when they sent me home with a medal. My mother insisted that I hang the essay on my wall, along with the fairy tales and pieces of fiction that I had been most proud of from my English class. She was quite proud of the whole ordeal and I didn’t have the heart to deny her, but every time that I saw that piece of paper staring down at me my stomach knotted. I had won. I knew exactly what America was supposed to mean, only I had never bothered to ask myself what it really meant to me. I felt that I had committed a huge betrayal, but I could not figure out who the betrayal was against.
Discovering that you’re an expat is a little how I imagine “discovering” you are gay might be. For the first portion of your life it doesn’t really have any context to come up in. Sure, there might be passing remarks about gender-norms whispered with feigned concern to your mother at company picnics, but overall you are just a kid. You don’t know anything about nationalism and your patriotism extends about as far as the repetition of the pledge of allegiance before school, half of which you mumble through because you never bothered to learn it. There are some kids ahead of their age bracket, “dating” or discussing “politics,” but really your life revolves around climbing trees, playing with toys, and decided who and what a best friend actually is. Maybe you are an expat, but it doesn’t really matter and no one knows yet, least of all you. Then, as you get a bit older nationalism becomes more central to your life. You start taking U.S. history in school, your homeroom teacher asks you to bring in clippings of current events, and you begin to actually hear the long talks about war and oil that the grown ups have been having forever. You don’t understand it yet, but you are definitely aware that it is an issue salient to your life, and that some day it is going to want some sort of defining affirmation from you. Until the choice has to be made you peek in and out of the realm of politics. You try different things like fourth of July parades, dressed in red, white and blue, and you make some declarations of your patriotism, just to see if it feels true. Sometimes it does, but most of the time (and you would never tell anyone) it doesn’t. Deep down, as soon as you knew what a patriot was you knew that you weren’t one.
Well, maybe that isn’t how it was for you. Maybe things continued on the course that they are ‘supposed’ to, and you felt all of the right emotions of pride and belonging, and you can sing the national anthem and hot dogs taste like freedom to you. But that is how it was for me, a slight gnawing of something not being right, followed by years of testing different things, a bit of denial, and finally the realization that I am an expatriate. Well, since I have never been a huge fan of labeling and I don’t particularly like the word I am more of a never-was-patriate.
The day that I had emerged onto the political stage and actually noticed that something wasn’t quite right happened in seventh grade. We were living in New York and I had just returned to my middle school of choice after a year of homeschooling in protest of the constant redistricting of military children. I hadn’t won the battle, as the entire military base had shut down and my parents just happened to move down the street from the school that I wanted to attend. It wasn’t the first time that my family had lived off of base housing, but it was the first time that it was considered permanent. For the first time in my life there were no fences keeping an eclectic mix of children together, giving me a consistant source of drama and playmates. There was just a two story, rather odd-shaped home with a slanted roof and a backyard that stretched on further than I ever cared to go.
I had always been a somewhat aloof child, and the move away from base housing mixed with a return to a school where I didn’t actually know anyone emphasized the aloofness. I was not unhappy. In fact, I was perhaps the happiest that I had been in my entire life. There is something great about being twelve, and coming into your own. But I did spend a large majority of that year up in my odd-shaped room, reading smuggled copies of Stephan King novels, and writing in my first journal.
My writing had always been encouraged by my teachers. In first grade I was sent to the principal’s office once, not because I had gotten in trouble, but to read him the story that I had written in our writing class. My passion for writing continued, and it is true that at times in my life it was the only definition that I held onto amidst the amorphous turmoil of becoming. In seventh grade I had a lovely English teacher who continued to encourage my writing and suggested that I enter the district-wide essay contest that year. I decided that I would, and went home assigned the uncontroversial topic, “What America Means to Me.”
I didn’t tell my parents about the contest. I wrote a few drafts of the essay, and took a near-final version to our family friend’s apartment. Pam was like a big sister to me. She took me shopping, bought me my first journal and several books, and listened when I spoke. She set me up at her computer (which we did not have at our house yet) to type my essay, and helped me to edit it. After nearly twenty years I cannot remember what I actually wrote in the essay. I suppose that I could find it in the boxes of writing that my mother kept, but the content is not really that important. What is important is that I distinctly remember crafting that essay. The prompt was, “What America Means to Me,” and I wrote an essay that could have been entitled, “What You Think America Should Mean to a Twelve Year Old Girl.” I added just enough angst and discontent for it to sound like it could be real, and everything that I wrote was true, but I didn’t actually believe any two consecutive sentences. I was quite proud of the finished product, typed and printed, edited by an adult, and my first piece of planned, constructed writing.
I turned the essay in to my homeroom teacher and more or less forgot about it for the next month. The writing of the essay was unproblematic. My ethical issue came when they announced the finalists for the competition and I learned that I would be asked to read my essay before a panelist of judges. No part of me wanted to read that essay out loud. My parents and teachers thought that my refusal was due to my shyness, and a projected fear of public speaking (I had never spoken in public before, and couldn’t know whether or not I feared it). They encouraged me to read the essay, and I couldn’t even recognize the real reason I didn’t want to read the essay, even if I had wanted to explain it to them. I ended up reading the essay, the entire time my face was flushed and I tried to mumble out the words, fearful that I would be discovered, that they would all know that the essay was a complete lie. America did not mean any of those nice things that I said it meant. America meant nothing to me.
Eventually we moved, and the essay came down. It got tucked away where I no longer had to think about it, but the damage had already been done. A dissonance had been discovered within me. I had emerged onto the political stage and I had declared my loyalties, but I also had learned that deep down something didn’t sit quite right when I called myself a patriot. It was just the beginning, and rather insignificant in the whole scheme of life, but it set me on a path of constant questioning, and an internal confusion towards nationalism and patriotic pride.