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Maha Atal ’08: Finding my inner patriot, abroad

Monday, April 23, 2007

OXFORD, England – In last month’s Vanity Fair, Englishman A.A. Gill described with disgust the behavior of British expatriates in New York society. Frequenting exclusively British clubs, dressing in tweed and overdoing their accents, the British expats were trying far too hard to assert their difference.

Gill is equally vexed by the unrealistic version of “Britishness” these emigrants cluster around. No one in Britain today – he claims – still lives in the 1950s sitcom world of New York’s British hangouts.

Then again, the immigrants themselves aren’t typical Britons. According to Gill, while other groups in America represent the best of their home country, Britishers who go abroad are the ones who couldn’t hack it – academically, politically or financially – in the motherland. “What you get,” he says, “are our failures and fantasists,” owners of an inferiority complex that manifests itself in too-tight jeans and too many pints of Guinness.

Perhaps, before coming to England, I’d have chuckled derisively as I read this piece.

Today, however, I can’t help but sympathize with these Brits. Atypical expats gathering around an idealized nationality? That sounds strangely like my experience as an American in England.

I, and most of the other Americans I know here, are pretty far from stereotypical Yanks. We don’t have strong accents, we don’t travel with fanny packs and Bermuda shorts, we don’t live on a diet of Big Macs and, to put it subtly, we aren’t gun-toting imperialist cowboys. Back in the States, many of us were among the first to recognize the errors of America’s current foreign policy or the flaws of American culture. The American community abroad isn’t exactly a bunch of blind, flag-waving patriots.

But 3,000 miles and 9 months away from home, we find patriotism and nostalgia in surprising places. I find myself nearly crying with joy when a friend makes me real pancakes for breakfast, and signing up for a March Madness pool despite never having watched a game of college basketball before leaving the United States.

Some of the America we long for is as made up as the expats’ New York Britain. At Brown, I doubt I’d be thrilled to watch my hometown Yankees play the Red Sox in a room full of Bostonians. But here, with a 3,000-mile perspective on regional rivalries, the national anthem hits the same spot in us all.

It’s a spot I never knew I had, and perhaps finding it is the most important lesson of my time here. When I land in New York in June, I will carry a newfound patriotism. But unlike the blind nationalists I still criticize, I have learned only this year what it is about America that makes me proud to call it home.

I grew up comfortably middle-class in New York. I attended a predominantly white, Protestant high school, and most of my friends are middle-class and white. I don’t talk much about my ethnicity (South Asian) and tend to roll my eyes at speeches about diversity and multiculturalism. But it is only here, in a country and a university that is still shockingly segregated, that I see the real impact of multiculturalism.

Diversity pervades American life in subtle ways. When my fellow visiting students and I pine for “American” food, we are thinking of Mexican fajitas and General Tso’s chicken. But I recently found myself having to justify the Americanness of these foods to a British friend who asked me what I missed most from home.

Here in Britain, where homegrown terror is a real threat, where a white elite student population still has an exclusively immigrant population cleaning their rooms, that kind of acculturation is hard to imagine.

Indeed, my cleaning-lady, or “scout,” always seems a bit confused when I speak to her in Hindi. I’m about the same age as her own daughter, but the British education system – with nonexistent financial aid and no concept of affirmative action – gives families like hers little chance of moving up.

Indeed, the most frustrating thing about Britain is how little things change here. Gothic buildings and antiquated traditions are charming, but the rigidity of the class and political structure that accompanies them is dangerous and disheartening.

Friends and family from home sometimes ask me if I could ever imagine living in England. The answer is always “no,” mostly because I can’t begin to imagine calling myself British. It seems like an identity that’s hard to acquire, hard to move into. It doesn’t easily accommodate strangers.

America, on the other hand, is obsessed with change, with everything that is newfangled and cutting edge, and our national identity is as subject to constant flux – just like our city landscapes. Which means that it’s always possible for new groups to become American and redefine American culture by their presence. Change is not always easy or conflict-free, but by and large, America welcomes it.

Change, the sense of a society that is always trying to move forward, is the defining American ideal and defining principle of my new patriotism. Sure, America has its flaws, and as an atypical patriot, I will continue to whine about them. But our culture of progress also arms me to alter them and inspires me to bring the nation I come back to even closer to the imagined America I found here.

The excessive tweed of A.A. Gill’s Britons is irritating, yet having rediscovered my American patriotism abroad, I can’t help but find the sight of the Scots and the English rooting for the same team strangely heartening.

Maha Atal ’08 no longer hates our freedom.

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