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American for beginners

American for beginners

Britain and America have many things in common, but flag-waving patriotism is not one of them. Asked to sing the national anthem, one small ex-pat faced a big dilemma

Britain and America have many things in common, but flag-waving patriotism is not one of them. Asked to sing the national anthem, one small ex-pat faced a big dilemma

A.D. Miller | May 10th 2016

We were passing the tailgate grill parties and merchandise vendors when the argument began. If my eight-year-old daughter could impersonate a dinosaur in her class play, I reasoned, then for the duration of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” she could pretend to be an American. It would only last a minute or two, and thousands of baseball fans would be watching, plus many more on television, and if the rest of her school choir placed their palms on their chests in loyalty, she should, too.

“But it’s not true for me,” she said, as an Atlanta cop waved us into a parking lot opposite Turner Field. “I don’t believe in it.” She was happy to sing, but she was British, and she would not consecrate someone else’s anthem by putting her hand on her heart. That, for her, would be a lie. Inside the stadium we left her in the mustering area, alongside a marching band in plumed hats and a team of majorettes, and went to find our seats.

I’ve been a foreign correspondent before, but not with children, who, as usual, both enhance and complicate the adventure. With their relentless inquisitions and unselfconscious directness, they insist on the essential questions. If something is different from previous experience – school, etiquette, fast food, spelling rules – must it also be better or worse? Is there a right side of the road to drive on, is “popsicle” preferable to “ice lolly” and are presidents a good idea? Living abroad is a constant exercise in this sort of comparison, and, try as we do to discourage or suspend it, in judgment. For Britons in America, the flag-waving patriotism – as in these solemn renditions of the national anthem before sporting events – is among the most jarring contrasts. It seems at once cloying and enviable, bespeaking both devotion and, maybe, the insecurity of a new, precariously diverse nation. 

The evening was still blue as the floodlights flickered on. Fans of the Atlanta Braves, and a few supporting their opponents, the New York Mets, filed in, bearing hot dogs, nachos, pizza and barbecue. Cheerleaders launched T-shirts into the crowd; an organ version of “Greensleeves” was mystifyingly piped in; the stadium cameraman sought out targets for Oblivious Cam and Hug Cam (on recognising themselves on the big screen, many of the ten-second stars felt obliged to flash their bellies or some other part of their anatomy): the bounteous amplitude of American entertainment, diversions that also help to fill out the staccato rhythm of American sports. These major-league occasions somehow remind me of the courthouse scenes in “The Trial”, in which Joseph K, Kafka’s protagonist, finds countless people inattentively milling about, as both spectators and coaches appear to in American stadiums, in proceedings that seem to have no obvious beginning or end. 

Then the children were on the turf, marching behind their teacher to assemble in formation beneath the pink-tinged clouds. Our seats were on the other side of the ground, and I thought about darting around it, but almost immediately they were singing, and we could scarcely make her out. Thankfully there was the big screen, with close-up footage that I tried to film with my phone, naturally cutting off everyone’s heads. Their voices got stronger with each line, like people singing “Happy Birthday” in a restaurant. It occurred to me that another objection my daughter raised was valid: the song is indeed, as she put it, “all to do with fighting”, that rocket’s red glare and those bombs bursting in air. There was no fly-by by fighter jets or nuclear bombers, as there might be at the Super Bowl or World Series, but the dotted lines between sport and identity and war were still discernible.

The cameraman panned across the front row, in the direction of my daughter, but, before he reached her, the feed switched to show the backs of the players’ shirts and some canned shots of fireworks. We began to despair, but then they cut back to the choir, and there she was. She had kept her hands by her side, but so, in the event, had everyone else. The children strained for the high note in the final line, as you are supposed to strain, or so someone once told me, the unattainable pitch symbolising the elusive grandeur of the American dream. My wife cried a little, and then the kids were gone, bouncing in relief as they vanished into the tunnel.

Moving abroad isn’t only a matter of adjudicating between “sidewalk” and “pavement” or determining the best pronunciation of “route”. The deeper puzzle is whether each of us has a proper, fitting place to live in the world, or if we can find a new one; whether home is a fixed spot on a map or a state of mind. My daughter loved the camaraderie and the razzmatazz and the singing, but, on that score, she is clear. After a few warm if incomprehensible innings and an ice-cream, we left Turner Field; on the way home, I tried to explain that, in a decade or so, she might find her role in this spectacle of Americana amusing. “Now teach me the second verse of ‘God Save the Queen’,” she said.