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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. 

4 Readers' comments

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Andy C - July 11th 2016

A fairly bizarre and superficial take on American patriotism. I'm disappointed given this paper's track record of thoughtful reporting. The Economist and the Western Left trip over themselves to laud any non-Western sign of national or religious (especially Islamic) devotion as "cultural richness, diversity, traditional culture, etc". However, Americans' pride in their country and its accomplishments is dismissed as the backwards behavior of semi-literate provincial hicks. Most Americans embrace such overt patriotism out of a genuine thankfulness for the US providing sanctuary, freedom, and massive economic opportunity for our families fleeing European, Asian, South American, etc' historically rigid class structures, religious persecution, state violence, deep corruption, & disastrous economic management. There are many of us who know our immigrant families' histories, are aware of current events, travel abroad frequently, and freely choose to embrace a national pride that is alien to the supposedly "intellectual" denizens of Islington. (Indeed Essex-style UK conservatism may be the best comparison for you.)

Dvd Payne - July 4th 2016

I really do not think the writer understands what is going on with the Americans. But, first and foremost, it is proper decorum and courtesy to stand when a national anthem is being player. If you are not a citizen of the country, stand at attention with your hands by your sides. It shows respect for the people of that country, Then, as far as the National Anthem of the U.S. is concerned, it is a poem celebrating the defense of Ft. McHenry against (who would have guessed), the British. It was later put to music and became the national anthem. The singing of the national anthem at the beginning of sporting events in the U.S. is a long-standing tradition and pride in our country. I believe they sing both anthems when our hockey teams play Canadian teams. As a student of languages, I know that you can not fully understand a language until you also know the customs of the country. As the descendent of a British subject who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, I still have to learn about British customs to even understand some of the descriptions of food. Take for example the British terms for what we call pudding. Anyway, welcome to the U.S., the land of the free, and long live the Queen.

1843cheer - May 11th 2016

It is an irony of "growing up" that when we were kids, we were always able to get to the heart of the matter before adults did. "Relentless inquisitions and unselfconscious directness", "[insistence] on the essential questions" seem to be the virtues we must surrender in order to find a place in this world we can fit. Woe to the person who will not so surrender. And so goes the second verse to "God save the Queen": O Lord our God arise , Scatter her enemies, And make them fall (staccatos on "And", "make", "them", "fall") . Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, On Thee our hopes we fix, God save us all.

kearbear - May 10th 2016

I work in an elementary school "newcomers classroom" in the USA, where all of the students are either recently arrived to the United States to stay or are visiting long term for various reasons. Not all of them are US citizens and about half aren't going to become citizens because they'll be going back to their home country. Regardless, it is the school policy that all students say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag the morning. They'd be about the same age or a little older than the girl in the story, but they aren't bothered by it. With hands over their hearts (the right hand even, if we can get it) the whole class enthusiastically choruses "with liberty and justice for all!" at the end, even if they stumbled a bit through the first part. To be honest I'm not sure that most of them understand what it is that they're saying (or attempting to say) at all, since they're still new to English. Call it a nefarious act of imposing patriotism on foreign nationals or a meaningless exercise, honestly I'm not sure which it is. Maybe some day the kids will remember the experience and find it amusing, creepy, or a source of national pride. All I know is that since those are the rules, they're going to keep on doing it.