OPINION: What is Patriotism? I See What America Is and What It Isn't
The concept of patriotism is complicated for me, as it is for many young people in the U.S. today. I feel this even more acutely, having been brought up with an identity that spans many cultures. I am very aware of all the privileges I have as an American. I am also very aware of America’s shortcomings, even when compared to Pakistan, which is both my family’s country of origin and a so-called “developing” country. When I reflect on patriotism, I can’t help but consider the complicated way I’ve experienced the 4th of July, the ultimate patriotic holiday for the United States. Take these two different scenarios:
It is a warm 4th of July night. A family clad in white shorts and matching American flag tank tops sit on their porch sipping lemonade. There is a sound of laughter and excited chatter in the air. Little children scurry around, chasing fireflies. Someone starts an impromptu rendition of “God Bless America.” Everyone joins in. The sound of music wafts through the warm breeze, “My home sweet home.”
It is an oppressively hot 4th of July night. The fireworks outside are loud and disruptive as my mother tries to console the family of a 40-year-old diabetic patient of hers who has died because he could not afford his insulin. His two middle school sons sob quietly. His wife looks shell-shocked.
“How will I pay for the funeral? How will I bring up my children?,” she wonders. She doesn’t have a job, or even a high school diploma.
What is patriotism? I’ve often wondered.
For some, it is a passive celebration of what America is now, a whole-hearted loyalty, uncritical of the way things are. For others, patriotism is fighting for change, fighting so that nobody dies of curable diseases because they can’t pay for medication, fighting so that no one has to sleep on street corners.
For me, with roots in two cultures, I see what America is and also what it is not. In my ‘other’ country of Pakistan, anyone, no matter how poor, can walk into a public hospital and get free care. America leads the world in medical advancements, but it is also the place where healthcare is not a universal right.
When I was younger, patriotism meant assimilating into American culture completely, while turning a blind eye on my own cultural roots. When I think of those days, I think of a time in third grade, when we were asked to write about someone who inspired us. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, immediately popped into my head. Although I spent my entire life inspired by his audacity in asking the British for a country, I somehow couldn’t work up the audacity to announce him as my choice to the entire class.
Instead, when it was my turn to speak, I announced Taylor Swift as my inspiration. I was met with approving, almost envious nods. I had bagged the All-American, country-turned-pop legend before anyone else. Little did my 9-year-old comrades know that I found her music childish, lacking substance, and thoroughly uninspiring. But even then, in the back of my 9-year-old mind that just wanted to fit in and be “normal,” there was a nagging feeling. I was ashamed of myself for yet again hiding who I truly was in the name of being American. I had not yet realized that my dark hair and rebellious brown eyes were as American as the sugar-sweet blondness of my friends.
But those inside voices protesting my concealment of reality grew to a crescendo as I grew older and realized there were real-world implications on real-world people when I didn’t speak up. It was bound to boil over. When someone in my sixth grade English class labeled an entire group of people as “strange and backwards,” the dam broke. Without raising my hand, I jumped up from my seat and shot back: “Maybe if you were exposed to people other than those like yourself, you would learn to appreciate their value instead of passing judgement.” Even though I had just challenged the most popular kid in our class, I saw people beginning to nod their heads in agreement.
Patriotism is a loaded word. To me, it represents a delicate balance of loving and having pride in our achievements, but also having the capacity to recognize our shortcomings and faults. My experience of being raised in two different cultures has given me the ability to see what America can be, and should aspire to be. For some, patriotism is a blind celebration of what America is now. For me, patriotism is appreciating what this country is, but also always aspiring for improvement. And where I once thought I was alone, speaking up has made me recognize that there is a generation of people like me, willing to speak out and stand up, to make this, our home, a better place for all of us.