Sometimes a moment just hits you. Out of nowhere, something happens, your mood changes and you can’t deny it. You are humbled by the moment, and left shaken.
And sometimes these moments crystallize your identity and make you realize things about yourself that you didn’t fully understand or previously see evidence of.
During a semester abroad, I was walking down the street in London on my way to the theatre. I loved living in London and could not have been happier about the situation and my life at that point.
It was autumn and the sun set early, so even though it wasn’t very late, the street were dark and I was navigating a new part of town. As I was walking past shops and grocers I heard Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” come playing out of bar and I started to cry, as I kept walking along.
“I was born in the U.S.A!” I wailed internally, while my mouth wobbled downward and I tried to hold back the tears welling up in my eyes.
These emotions caught me completely off guard. I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t care about this song. I knew I loved America, but so what? That’s nothing to cry about. What was it that provoked this reaction? I have no idea. Maybe I was in denial about my homesickness, or maybe hearing those words “Born in the U.S.A.,” so clearly when I was in a different country just highlighted my American-ness in a very powerful way. I don’t know.
I can wave the flag and sing the national anthem at football games, but it’s these unexpected moments that hit you in the gut that really make you think about your country and what it means to be one of its citizens.
In contrast, there are other times when you see the negative side of America and you wish you weren’t a part of it. I know America does a lot of bad things, but I usually don’t think too long about the specifics of it. Sometimes the injustices of America flicker through my mind, like when I was living in Cleveland and I knew no matter how fast I drove through East Cleveland or how many traffic laws I broke, the cops would never pull a white girl over in that neighborhood.
It’s wrong. It’s bad. It’s a fact. We move on.
But sometimes those things get to you.
In Johannesburg, South Africa in 2011, I was waiting for a plane to fly back to New York City. One of the girls I’d been traveling with was there, too, waiting for her flight home to London. We ate dinner and when it got closer to our flights we walked downstairs to our gates. Every other gate in the airport looked as it always did, looked the same way it did about a week ago when I few into the same airport. But it was a few days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the security around the flight to New York was visible.
My ticket and carry-on bag were checked again, even though I’d already gone through the standard security line before arriving at the departures area. I was padded down and I had to sit in the seats right by the gate and my friend on the London flight couldn’t sit with me. As I sat there a mother and two young daughters in matching pink sweat suits were going through the additional rounds of security. The mom was smiling and saying, “Watch me girls, you have to spread your arms and legs out like this and let the lady pat you.” The little girls obediently mimicked their mom, and the younger one enthusiastically raised her arms, her dipper poking out of the top of her pants and airport security did their thing.
And again I found myself in a foreign country crying about America. Why did my British friend, a few yards away, get to act so civilized, while my country was frisking toddlers in diapers?
The lack of sleep, the exhaustion of travel and the emotions of being an American then and there caught up with me and I couldn’t stop crying. As all the passengers made our way down the walkway and onto the plane our tickets were checked several more times. I was worried that my crying would make me look like a suspicious terror suspect, but no one said anything.
The flight home was nearly 24 hours, but that day spent in the airplane wasn’t long enough to soften my anger. The image of a security guard patting down a cute toddler in a pink sweat suit that was what America was and I didn’t want to be a part of it. I wanted to be with the other countries. Everyone had September 11 on their calendars, but they were responding to it in different ways.
When we landed in New York, I saw the family again. They were fine. Probably sleepy, but still well-behaved and going about their day. Maybe the upped security didn’t get to them the way it did me. Maybe the woman was too focused on managing two little kids on an international flight to worry about the symbolism of it all.
Like I said, sometimes a moment just hits you. The people around you might not realize you’ve been knocked down, but you can’t forget.