Lit-Mag #40 – Expatriations: The expat edition
Toward an Understanding of the Expat
For several years, I have carried around business cards emblazoned with a cheery but imposing American flag under which is written the job title: patriot. I started carrying them because the rate at which I was being stopped and questioned by police officers—most famously at American Girl Place in Chicago, but also at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and once in my own apartment building—had made it clear that the political purpose of my actions were under some dispute by peacekeeping authorities.
When I live somewhere overseas, however, my business cards say “writer.” Patriotism, when exhibited extranationally, is disingenuous and unseemly. Also, potentially not funny.
When considering patriotism, it is wise to consider also it’s fictional opposite, matriotism, particularly as defined in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:
Dunbar sat up like a shot. “That’s it,” he cried excitedly. “There was something missing – and now I know what it is.” He banged his first down into his palm. „No patriotism,“ he declared.
“You’re right,” Yossarian shouted back. “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right. The hot dog, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mom’s apple pie. That’s what everyone’s fighting for. But who’s fighting for the decent folk? Who’s fighting for more votes for the decent folk? There’s no patriotism, that’s what it is. And no matriotism, either.”
It’s a throw-away joke in the text, meaning that no elaboration of matriotism is ever supplied, but an exact definition isn’t necessary. We know instinctually that matriotism is a feminine love for one’s country, a vision of one’s homeland more as home than as land: a place where citizens are cared for, nurtured, given sustenance. It implies spiritual support, physical care, endless meals, and a warm place to stay, every night you choose to be there. It is comfortable and accepting.
A nation that does not offer health care, retains a vigorous bigotry toward certain spiritual practices, and has not increased but instead defunded temporary shelters and food aid programs during an economic recession cannot inspire matriotism among its citizenry. It must rely on the more aggressive, masculine, love of the land in homeland known as patriotism.
Artist: Lee Greenwood
Song: Proud To Be An American 1
If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life 2
And I had to start again with just my children and my wife 3
I’d thank my lucky stars 4 to be livin’ here today 5
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away. 6
From the lakes of Minnesota, to the hills of Tennessee
Across the plains of Texas, from sea to shining sea.
From Detroit down to Houston, and New York to LA 7
Well there’s pride in every American heart 8 and its time we stand and say:
CHORUS (2x) I’m proud to be an American where at least 9 I know I’m free 10
And I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me
And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her 11 still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land. 12 God bless the USA. 13
1 The song is titled “God Bless the USA,” but is more commonly known as “Proud to be an American” for its tenacious, booming chorus. Although released in 1983, the song first achieved popularity when it was played heavily during Operation: Desert Storm in 1991. It was revived ten years later as a song commemorating September 11, 2001, at which time it hit #16 on the Billboard Hot 100.
2 Born October 27, 1942, country music singer Lee Greenwood was raised on a poultry farm in California, where he learned to express himself musically not with the fiddle or banjo, but with the saxophone. His first band played pop music in casinos around Las Vegas, and when it broke up he worked as a blackjack dealer until his musical rediscovery in 1979 by the Nashville division of record label MCA. He’s had several top hits in his career since, multiple internationally recognized awards, traveled the world over several times, and was appointed to a six-year term in the National Council on the Arts by President George W. Bush in 2008. This council advises the National Endowment for the Arts on granting procedures, honorees, and funding priorities. The full scope of what Greenwood has “worked for all [his] life” includes cultural and artistic honors, financial wealth, and significant input into the cultural policy and funding procedures of the US Government.
3 Greenwood has six children and is currently married to former Miss Tennessee USA, Kimberly Payne, although the lyric must originally have referred to his second marriage, to Melanie Cronk. The couple divorced sometime after this song was written, and Greenwood wed Cronk, his third wife, in 1992.
4 “To thank one’s lucky stars” is a platitude that originated in British playwright Ben Jonson’s 1599 play, Every Man Out of his Humor. The play is a slightly Anglicized version of a traditional Greek New Comedic farce, and a follow-up to Jonson’s more successful Every Man in his Humor. Although stars do appear on the American flag, the stars to which this phrase refers are those read by mystics during the Greco-Roman Era.
5 Greenwood lives in Nashville. When he wrote this song he most likely lived in Los Angeles.
6 It is unclear to which “they” Greenwood is referring, although the current version of the American flag, first flown on July 4, 1960 following Hawaii’s induction into the union, makes use of the following symbology: White signifies purity and innocence; Red stands for valor and bravery; Blue means vigilance, perseverance, and justice. The stars are considered a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun. The meanings of these symbols are determined by Executive Order from the President of the United States, who is the only body in the world granted power to change them. It is unlikely, however, that Greenwood intended antagonism toward the Executive branch of the US Government or President Ronald Reagan in particular when the song first appeared in 1983. It is more likely that his antagonism was reserved for military enemies of the US at that time, the most notable of which remains the Caribbean island Grenada, invaded under Operation Urgent Fury in October of that year. This action, purportedly conducted at the behest of American citizens there in medical school under duress during a local military coups—a claim since disproven—was considered a “flagrant violation of international law” by the United Nations. Nineteen American soldiers lost their lives and 116 were wounded; 45 Grenadan military people lost their lives and 358 were wounded; nearby Cuba lost 25 and saw 59 wounded, and 24 Grenadan non-military personnel were killed in the internationally condemned invasion that led to the establishment of 118 offshore banks—1 for every 64 citizens—eight years later. One journalist referred to the capital, St. George, as “a fast-growing haven for money laundering, tax evasion, and assorted financial fraud.” Thus it becomes clear that the enemies seemingly intent to change the meaning of the American flag’s stand for “freedom” are, in Greenwood’s mind, those who might stand in the way of the accrual of financial wealth through either legal or illegal means.
7 Greenwood frequently travels by private jet between tour stops.
8 When he wrote the song, Greenwood admits he had no idea how much it would impact people. “One of the reasons I wrote the lyric ‘I’m proud to be an American,’ is I really wanted to instill the pride back in America. The song represents my family, my community and all the Americans who are proud of who they are.”
9 The use of the doubting phrase “at least” here would seem to set the rampant poverty, genocide, and human, labor and women’s rights violations that form a significant force in US history against Greenwood’s individualist appreciation of his own freedom, but if one listens to the song one gets the sense that, in fact, he sort of means that he wishes there weren’t so many queers, girls, and brown people constantly testing his liberation.
10 The Chipmunks’ YouTube version of “God Bless the USA” notes, repeatedly, that the intention behind their song is patriotic, and not mocking. This is done partially to combat YouTube’s notorious take-down policy regarding songs that violate copywritten works, but is also likely a defensive maneuver against YouTube commenters, who are known for vociferous homophobic, misogynist, racist and xenophobic screeds. The supposed freedom guaranteed Americans by Greenwood’s song clearly does not allow for total creative freedom, but does preserve a freedom to denigrate.
11 The tradition of using feminine pronouns to refer to the United States of America goes back to the so-called Founding Fathers.
12 The singer often displays his love of this land with a leather, American flag-themed jacket that he wears on stage during the performance of this song, thought by many to be the unofficial anthem of contemporary American patriotism. The wearing of the flag is usually not considered defilement in this case, primarily because the definition of defilement under US law includes the intent to denigrate the symbolism of the flag. For this reason, it is also not considered defilement when attractive women wear American flag bikinis, in any context, although it must be noted that it is considered defilement when men wear American flag-themed clothing in the region of their anus.
13 Greenwood denies dodging the draft into the Vietnam War, claiming that because he had young children, he was never called. He vigorously defends the notion that if he were called to perform, he would certainly “fight and die if necessary for my country,” but has not, in fact, joined of his own accord.
As a direct relationship with one’s homeland, the notion of expatriotism is as fictional as the notion of matriotism. Expatriotism, as it does exist, is defined only by the activities of a tangible community of people who identify as expats. One does not, and cannot, feel a sense of expatriotism for one’s nation of birth. One can, however, feel disgusted, rejected, frustrated, angered, saddened, or elated by same.
In the countries where I spend the most time, Cambodia and, lately, Germany, I do travel in expat communities. But even when I crave a group of people around whom I can just say what I want to say without double-checking my ever-struggling language skills—I am never quite comfortable assuming the expat identity.
Part of my reasoning is linguistic: I consider myself a patriot. That I redefine this term drastically to suit my own particular style of aggressive love of nation notwithstanding, my American heritage and all its deeply flawed if not downright fucked-up elements is important to me. I do not want to disavow it.
But mostly, I don’t want to identify as an expat because I don’t like expats. Most I know travel in packs—bubbles, they’re called in Cambodia. Social groups arranged by cultural interests, job title, economic class, and favorite pastimes. Many have left their original countries to pursue greater freedoms—the freedom to purchase sex with underage girls, for example. The freedom to establish oneself as an artist, an entrepreneur, a maven in some arena already dominated by them back home. The freedom to start over with a clean slate. Sure, they identify with our more romantically minded expat forebears—Beckett, Greer, Joyce, Hughes—but most arrive not prepared to create new worlds: Most desire to dominate new worlds.
In practice, expatriotism looks suspiciously like colonialism.
“A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation’s flag, sees not the flag, but the nation itself. And whatever may be its symbols, its insignia, he reads chiefly in the flag, the government, the principles, the truths, the history that belongs to the nation that sets it forth. The American flag has been a symbol of Liberty and men rejoiced in it.” —Henry Ward Beecher
It is significant that many of the terms addressed in this essay do not have the strict definitions we believe a vocabulary based on national borders might demand. It is even more significant that the definition of patriotism does not include the militaristic aggression we know, in fact, to be hidden within it. So it becomes clear that what we understand about patriotism—and matriotism, and expatriotism—is largely unprovable.
Patriotism, in fact, functions quite a bit like the nation in Beecher’s statements: The nation itself need never appear to inspire the feelings described. Its symbols, its insignia, its slogans—its brand—this is all we need for rejoicing. Patriotism, too, doesn’t rely on facts, events, or policies: it relies on emotion. It is intangible, and flexible.
Patriotism even allows for your anger, your frustrations, your abandonment.
This is why the expat is such an elusive creature, so clearly rooted in a certain love of nation that, in more proximous circumstances, we would call patriotism.