Patriotism and Belonging

by Britta Jensen

I act like I am an immigrant to my own country. Because I am. I have been in the sweltering heat of Austin, Texas for three weeks, avoiding my fear of:

  • the bugs,
  • the possibility of being robbed
  • not knowing how to do things that any normal American should know how to do.
  • a lack of health insurance
  • the unknown

Isn’t this all a part of the adventure of re-immigration?

Wait. I’m a U.S. citizen. My passport says I belong. However, pieces of paper rarely define who we are, regardless of what the census demands. (Yes, I had a census packet awaiting me on my first day of receiving mail at my new flat). I was reminded that it was federal law that I had to fill it out. (And if I wasn’t Mormon and reliant upon census data to do family history I probably would have ignored it.) After ten years of government service and a lifetime of living under military hierarchy I have varied views on what the government can and cannot ask from its “free citizens.”

A week after I’d arrived, with only two local (and recent) friends and several social engagements lined up, my first worry (along with finding a good exterminator) was what was I going to do on my first July 4th back in the U.S?



Because I’ve spent 22 years of my life abroad I couldn’t ignore this first auspicious July 4th and let it pass by in a blur, waiting for the next Bavarian fireworks display to count as my observation of July 4th. (This was similar to what we did in Japan, except Yokosuka and Zushi do a fireworks display to rival all fireworks world-wide, in my very biased opinion). I needed an event to replace previous stateside encounters where July 4th brought a sense of dislocation instead of celebration.

As I contemplated what I would do, I had an inner conversation with myself that went a little something like this:

“I will not don the red, white and blue. I will not sing patriotic songs and look like a gun-toting redneck.”

Instead, I wanted to talk to people about what freedom means to them. I wanted to share what I’ve lived from living overseas while trying to adjust to the fact a huge part of me still resides mentally in Germany, and Korea and Japan. My mind and body hasn’t made the full transition and for the first time I’m willing to accept that it takes a long time to make that complete mental journey. I’m willing to accept my best efforts and not get hung up on the details I can’t handle yet.


Then, July 4th happened. And it was glorious and wonderful. It shouldn’t have been glorious and wonderful, because it was so bloody hot, humid and we were outside with the pregnant expectation of rain in the air. One of my book club members kindly recommended we vacate indoors before the showers started and fifteen minutes before taking respite inside her house the thunder and showers began. Part of me wanted to be outside soaking in it. But, you can’t do things like this when you’re visiting with people. They don’t like wet stains on their furnishings.

So, I watched and listen to the ebb and flow of conversation and felt, though I’d only known this lovely group of women and men for about two weeks (our book club organizer I met at the salon here in Austin when I visited in April and she could see I needed a friend). It was the kindness of these new faces that made me think: this is what makes America great. This was the sense of belonging that I have been missing probably my whole life, with the exception of nine years in New York City. And, the communities in NYC I felt the most comfortable with, no wonder, were recent immigrants, expats, and individuals who looked nothing like me. I never thought this was weird pre-Lord Cheeto.

A small minority of “well-wishers” or “masquerading self appointed prophets” warned me that the U.S. would not be like Germany. I needed to protect myself, not smile so much, be wary and not talk to strangers. (You would think I was 15, not 39). Some made dire predictions that I would be back in Germany within a few years when I got sick of how messed up the U.S. is now. “You’ll see Britta, you’ve been overseas too long.”

It is important to be wary about advice from individuals who have never had a huge emotional investment, and therefore little stored capital in your life. When one makes a huge life/career move, people come from the woodwork. I think it’s a type of spectator sport. “We’ll act like we care so we can say ‘told-you-so’ from the eves and rafters where we’re watching.” It’s an emotional coliseum where the horrors and tragedies are dramatic because they’re happening to someone else and not the audience.

There was something in their premonitions because I do fear for my life on the freeways of Texas. How can a people so kind to your face be such jerks when they drive and risk the life and limb of everyone around them to get somewhere only two minutes earlier than scheduled? It’s almost as bad as driving in Korea. But, these bad drivers–like the bad people we see on the news– only account for a minority.

Another moment of truth brought from my wondrous 4th of July: my belonging is not dependent on other people’s acceptance. And, this is a new tenet in my belief about culture and patriotism. It is possible to be a loyal American without being a crazy patriot. I finally pinned down why I can never be a true patriot: to be one is to deny my foundational belief in the importance of all cultures.

I cannot say “America the Great” without feeling that I’m denigrating someone who doesn’t come from America. I can say that America is a great and mighty country. But, in the next sentence I will say that America has a lot to learn because we put out a public image of greatness without listening to what others have to say.

But, I have to revise this statement about listening, because here in Texas people really want to know (from all walks of life): what is life like in Germany? From the 80+ year old ladies at church, to the opera-happy lifeguard at the YMCA, to the lovely Beijing native watching his daughter swim, to my new neighbour helping me get acquainted with the landscape: everyone is eager to hear what it is like to make such a huge transition. And, unlike past encounters, they really listen. God bless Texas.

When I had a moment of wide-eyed awe at HEB in Mueller with two book club friends, they didn’t chastise me or act like I needed to hurry up and adjust. Marcia (pseudonym) said, “I’m loving watching our city through your eyes, it’s such a joy.” And I felt that trickle, again, of belonging. And part of it is that I’m looking for it. Everyday I’m going out and trying to connect, to be a part of my environment in a way I couldn’t quite manage the past ten years either because my surrounding community wasn’t open to it, or I was too ashamed of my poor linguistic skills.

My brother and I recently had a phone conversation about what it’s like to live in a country where you haven’t lived there long enough to run into people you know. It’s so isolating you wonder if you’re really alive, or if you’re a spirit drifting through another dimension. It is both trippy and incredibly devastating if you are an introvert who is afraid of being impolite and starting a conversation that might burden a stranger.

In my new surroundings, I’ve tried to follow the Brene Brown motto in Rising Strong of connecting, of reaching deeply (daring deeply) and embracing whatever failure might arise as being a part of the courageous living I’ve shied away from in one way or another.

There is a bravery required in belonging that I think can be a part of patriotism. Instead of saying, “look how free America is,” I’d love to hear people say, “What can I do to bring my freedoms to communities that are struggling?” Instead of criticizing your neighbours who leave their chicken bones in the street: try and see why they’re doing it. Have a conversation with them: “It matters to me that our neighbourhood is clean, how I can help make this a possibility?”

I agree that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another,” and I see many individuals working at grocery stores until 0100 in the morning and I can’t help wondering if that’s what America needs to be: an altar to the worship of endless goods? Or, can we be the instruments of an endless good that won’t begin and end with things, but people? My life is forever changed by the love of my friends in Germany. Without their faith in me, support, and kindness my life would have turned out very differently.

Andrew Jackson, that old rascal, stated: “No free government can stand without virtue.”And, I believe I have seen more virtue and kindness in my three weeks in Texas than ugly moments. I’ve had so many past ugly moments that I let define my opinion of my country. Now, I’ve chosen to be open to the stories, not the statistics, of what is every individual’s truth. I want to look at people on both a micro and macro level while avoiding easy answers and palliatives. Regardless of what goes on around me, it is not what I wear everyday or put on my bumper sticker that defines me, but what is written on my heart and evident in my daily actions.