Chinese vs. American Flags
Excerpt from On the Move
December 2007 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
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. Almost every family in our neighborhood and in other neighborhoods around Baton Rouge, Louisiana 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.
However, 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.
My father proposed a solution. Upon seeing our neighbors' American flags, he 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.