“Are you patriotic?” he said getting up from his camper chair, revealing the stars and stripes that had been squashed under his generous ass. It was an American flag design. His wife had the matching pair.
I’d never been asked this question before, so I didn’t have a stock answer as I did for the usual questions South Africans get asked “What’s the crime like?” “Is it safe to walk around?” “Did Oscar kill Reeva?” Violence and guns are always popular topics, in movies as in life.
I wanted to answer “no ” but I knew calling myself “unpatriotic” was akin to calling myself a racist (in some parts) or atheist (in others). I didn’t have the heart to tell him that 94% of all American flags are actually imported from China.
Pic: yes, everything is bigger in America (or the tourists are smaller).
I had been confronted and confused by patriotism a few times since arriving on American soil.
At first I was amused that so many Americans proudly fly their flag outside their homes. It felt like they were signalling someone or signifying something, I just wasn’t sure what. Perhaps they felt the modern day plague of bad debt would pass them over if they nailed all their colours, stars and stripes to their mast.
I got used to seeing the flag everywhere – on buildings, outside businesses, flying out of car windows and squatting on bumper stickers. Even motorhomes on junk lots in trailer parks were decorated with patriotic pride, alongside the rusting rotting dreams of capitalistic pride and joy, aka ‘more stuff’.
But when I walked past a homeless man on Venice Beach, pushing a shopping trolley filled with all his worldly possessions and sporting an American flag, I stopped being bemused and started wondering if this patriotism business was indeed all harmless decoration and pretty posturing. Why was this man, who was living outside the system, not protected or sheltered by it in any shape or form, still swearing allegiance to his flag? His loyalty seemed misplaced to me, something akin to Stockholm syndrome or opening an account at Bank of America after they robbed your gran of her pension. And where did I fit in?
That’s what travelling does so well – it takes you out of your cultural comfort zone and makes you think about the way you live and what you align with, whether explicitly or implicitly.
If patriotism is “devoted love, support, and defence of one’s country, national loyalty” then no, I would say I am not patriotic.
I cannot support elected officials (I can’t as yet call them leaders) that seek to enrich themselves instead of the lives of the poor, aging and disadvantaged – the very people that give them their power and mandate.
I will never be devoted to a culture that holds the pursuit of materialism above humanity, greed above shared reciprocity.
And I will not stand in defence of attacks on the weak and defenceless, be these racist, sexist or elitist.
My camping neighbour never got his answer. Instead I chose to listen to why thinks he is or should be. It sounded like he didn’t know or care too much about what his country does on foreign soil or to anyone who doesn’t fit the mould on his own soil. I let him have his pride as I swallowed mine.
Blindly patriotic? No.
Proudly South African? Not at the moment, but I hope to be.
Right now, as I prepare for my next trip (spoiler alert it’s India), I am going to focus on trying to be a good ambassador for the culture and country that I represent in my heart and that I still believe we have the potential to be.
I won’t defend what my country and countrymen have done in the past or support what we are doing now, but I sure as hell can start with my personal conduct and try my hand at being “proudly me”.
Musing on the state of the independent nation of me.