Chapter 7: The American Flag
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
The year was 1991, and patriotism was running high in America. Our young men and women were off in the Middle East fighting the Persian Gulf War. People at home showed their support by proudly displaying American flags in front of their houses. When Southerners believe in something, they really believe in that something. Whether it's cordial manners towards friends and neighbors, traditional family values, unwavering faith in the Christian God, or, in this case, a strong sense of national pride, people in the South are extremely adamant about their beliefs. Even though I may not agree with all the views of the conservative majority in the region, I admire the honesty, sincerity, and passion of many of its residents (traits I have rarely witnessed to the same degree elsewhere in this country).
Almost every family in our neighborhood and in other neighborhoods around Baton Rouge bought a full-sized American flag, complete with a huge wooden mounting pole and a metal rack that propped it up against their houses, usually right above the front door. Every morning as I waited for the school bus on the street corner, I saw people bringing out their flags, unfolding them with respect, and setting them up for everyone to see. It was sort of majestic to see large American flags sticking out of almost every house and flapping in the slight breeze.
The father of the family right across the street from our house was in the Middle East serving as a combat medic. When he returned safely, his family invited everyone in the neighborhood over to their house to celebrate his homecoming. For the kids, it was just another party, but the adults reminded us of how valuable our freedoms were in America, and how they were worth defending. Thinking back now, I doubt that most of them had ever lived anywhere outside of America or witnessed these freedoms being taken away; they were probably repeating sound bites they had heard from politicians' speeches. While the war was taking place, I tried hard to feel proud to be an American like all of the other kids. But there was a lingering uneasiness inside of me which prevented me from immersing myself in the patriotism that was supposed to feel so natural and so right.
Up until that point in my life, I had never felt a strong bond towards any particular country. I had spent time in three countries—China, Switzerland, and the United States of America—but I didn't know which one I was supposed to feel patriotic towards. I was too young to develop a sense of national identity associated with China, I never felt any sort of connection with Switzerland because I only lived there for a year, and I didn't feel that I was American since I grew up in an immigrant family that did not know nearly enough about American history or culture. Switzerland was not a contender; it was a toss-up between China and the United States, between my ethnic heritage and my present home.
At the time, I didn't know how my parents felt about China or about being Chinese; I simply assumed that they were highly patriotic towards their home country since they moved to America as adults. However, I later learned that both of my parents became disillusioned with the Chinese government after living through the ridiculous yet tragic years of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution and felt extremely fortunate to be in America. Back then, I rarely asked my parents about their feelings on politics or national identity, but even when I did, they never gave me satisfactory answers. They always told me that I wouldn't understand until I was older. That was fine with me, but the result was that I grew up without strong patriotic attachments to any particular country.
I was a boy without a flag to call his own. I felt that my family should raise an American flag in front of our house like everybody else, but somehow I thought that we did not deserve to have one. I felt that we were not real Americans, and I was afraid that other people would ridicule us for being impostors who were pretending to be American. My white friends' families provided the model of what I thought it meant to be American: a stay-at-home mom, a warm, comfortable house filled with decorations, relics, paintings, and family portraits, going to church together as a family every Sunday, and praying together before every meal. I didn't know much about America, but I did know enough to feel that we were definitely not American according to my naive definition at the time. I thought that if these families deserved to put American flags in front of their homes, then we definitely did not. In my head, it was a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" situation. If we didn't put up an American flag, I was afraid that people would easily single us out as treacherous foreigners (our house was the only one on the block without a flag hanging outside), but if we did put up a flag, I was afraid that people would mock us as fake wannabe-Americans.
During the first few days of first grade at Jackson Elementary School, I noticed that some strange cult-like activity took place every morning right as class began. All of the kids stood up together as if commanded by some higher power and put their right hands on their chests, slightly left of center. I don't remember if they were led by the teacher or by a voice on the loudspeaker, but they all started chanting this thing in unison with amazing exuberance—"I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America ..." I couldn't understand a word that they were saying since I didn't speak English at the time. Fortunately, I had grown proficient at mimicry from my kindergarten experiences, so I stood straight up along with everyone else, placed my open right palm flatly against my chest, looked at how the boy next to me was positioned, and just moved my lips along with his. No sounds came out of my mouth. I did this same mime act every single morning, hoping that nobody around me would notice that I had no clue what we were doing standing in the classroom chanting this passage.
As the weeks passed, I began to recognize certain words, but I just couldn't memorize the entire pledge yet. It was a challenge for me to even comprehend the easy phrases, but words like republic, indivisible, and liberty were impossible to recognize by listening to two dozen kids chanting slightly out-of-sync in thick Southern accents. I was always too timid to ask the teacher, much less the other kids, about the meaning of the pledge (and I didn't have access to the Internet back in those days to look it up myself). I'm sure that if I had asked my teacher one day after class, she would have patiently explained it to me and even practiced it with me until I got it right. I didn't even bother to ask my parents since I (rightly) assumed that they knew nothing about this ritual; I didn't even tell them that this occurred every morning.
After spending a year reciting the pledge daily, I memorized it and no longer had to lip sync during our daily morning recitals. I was glad that I went through my not-knowing-the-pledge phase in first grade because I never saw those kids again. When I started second grade and entered the classroom with people whom I would later become good friends with, I was prepared to say the pledge every morning with confidence. It helped me to appear a bit less different.
The pledge of allegiance wasn't too difficult to learn, but the U.S. national anthem was a real doozie. I first heard the Star Spangled Banner at a high school football game that my mother's colleague took us to one evening in order to introduce us to that very American sport. Before the game started, everybody in the stands stood up in unison. I thought that I was all set because we were going to say the pledge of allegiance. My mother didn't know the pledge, so I was prepared to show her how smart I was by reciting it in front of her. But then, to my surprise, music started playing and people all started singing. I began to panic. Wait a minute, this wasn't the pledge of allegiance, or was it? Was there some tradition where people sang the pledge at sporting events instead of reciting it? As my mother and I stood there silently, I tried to make out the words, but it was really difficult since so many people were all singing at the same time. I only recognized enough words to know that it wasn't the pledge of allegiance.
I never did learn the national anthem when I lived in Louisiana. I only heard it a few times at sporting events, special school ceremonies, and during my elementary school graduation. I found that it was much more socially acceptable to just stand there and listen to the national anthem rather than singing along. I could pretend that I was ashamed of my horrible singing voice. Even to this day, I don't know when or where kids first learn the pledge of allegiance or the national anthem—from parents, teachers, television? I really don't know.
Learning these traditions helped me to appear more American, but I still felt like an outsider looking inwards since I didn't really know what the words to these patriotic poems really meant. In hindsight, the irony is that, as recent immigrants, my parents would have probably been able to better appreciate the message in those patriotic words than their American peers since they had actually lived in places where many of the freedoms taken for granted here weren't available.
Remember how almost every family in my neighborhood erected a big American flag in front of their houses during the Persian Gulf War as a sign of patriotism? My father suggested that, to follow suit, we should put up a Chinese flag in front of our house since we were Chinese. My father was a man of logic, and he figured that this was the most reasonable course of action: Our neighbors displayed a symbol of their home country, so we should follow suit by displaying a symbol of our own home country. My mother, who had a much longer exposure to American culture since she attended graduate school here, was horrified by that idea and vehemently objected to it. She knew that it would be utterly idiotic to display the flag of a powerful Communist nation during wartime in a politically conservative climate just a couple of years after the Cold War had ended. I objected as well, but on the grounds of childish fear rather than political sensitivity. I was already so paranoid about what others would think of my family if we put up an American flag; I was deathly afraid of what people would think (or do) if we hoisted a big red Chinese flag up in front of our house.
At the time, I thought my father was strongly patriotic towards China since he wanted to prominently display a Chinese flag in front of our house. Years later, I found out that, even back then, he had already been disillusioned by the corruption of the modern Chinese government and how it had warped the ideologically-noble philosophies of its early founders. So why would he still want to display a Chinese flag even though he didn't support its government?
For my father, the flag represented pride in China as an influential civilization with an over 5,000-year heritage rather than as a modern 20th century communist regime. He was and still is extremely proud of China as a culture. He used to take every opportunity to show how advanced the Chinese civilization had been in ancient times. He always sneered at the American history books that I studied for class: "You kids have it so easy here in America! You only have to study 200 years of American history! We had to study over 5,000 years of Chinese history in school! The great Chinese civilization has been around far, far longer than America!" Whenever we went out to eat Italian food, he would tell me about how the Chinese had first invented pizza and spaghetti, not the Italians, and how the Chinese had invented just about everything else thousands of years before the Europeans did. I didn't know how much of what he told me about ancient China was true, but I always sensed the pride of being Chinese reflected in his voice whenever I heard him boasting about how the Chinese were better than other civilizations in one way or another.
My father did not see what was wrong with hanging a big Chinese flag in front of our house. He had recently arrived in America and was attending graduate school at the time, and all of his friends were unassimilated foreign students like himself. He didn't realize that everyone was erecting American flags as a collective display of patriotism to support America during wartime, so that hoisting a huge symbol of communism wasn't exactly the most socially acceptable thing to do in this particular situation.
Besides, where could you buy a full-sized Chinese flag in the Deep South? I rarely saw flags of other nations, much less a symbol of the world's most feared communist country (after the recent downfall of the Soviet Union). Even if it were easy to buy a Chinese flag, could you imagine driving down our quiet neighborhood street and seeing a procession of American flags and then BAM—a bright red Chinese flag protruding out of our house? I think about it now and laugh at that absurd mental image, but back then I wasn't laughing. It wasn't funny at all. I was really afraid. I was desperately trying to fit in, to become assimilated into American society, and the last thing I wanted was for my family to brand our own home with the MADE IN CHINA seal.
This flag incident made me realize that my loyalties were torn between two countries, so I responded by distancing myself from both. I was scared of putting up a Chinese flag and uncomfortable with raising an American flag. I tried to be proud of my Chinese heritage, but my mother taught me to keep quiet about my origins since she didn't want me to further highlight my foreignness. At the same time, I tried to feel more patriotic towards America, but nobody had fed me enough propaganda yet to complete my transformation.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo