Friday, July 02, 2010

Patriotism vs. Gratitude

Though I've been thinking about similar things since we returned to the States last month, reading Anastasia's post on patriotism and the church has helped me to clarify what I've been feeling in a very specific way (BTW: I'd be interested to hear other expat perspectives). We've been living in the Middle East for almost a year now. Hubby and I have gone through all the usual stages of international, expatriate living: an initial sense of adventure, followed by all sorts of confusing, frustrating, and irrational (to us) adjustments to our daily lives, along with outright culture shock. By December, I was at my breaking point, and I really wasn't sure how I would make it through each day. I went through a semester-long sort of love affair with teaching an extremely diverse international student body; I was charmed by awareness of world events and their ability to see themselves as global citizens. Some things (like the frustrations that come with language barriers) became normal, while others (the reckless and often fatal driving habits of many Qataris) will never be normal, though we adjust our routines and routes as much as possible.

All of this is to say that I've spent the last year thinking about what it means to live in America vs. the Middle East (Qatar specifically). What it means to be an American. What privileges I have simply because I was born in the United States. What privileges I have because I'm white, make a certain amount of money, etc. As I've looked around me in a country where approximately 70% of the people are imported labor from South Asia, there to do work that the citizens refuse to do (or learn to do) for themselves, I've seen people who do not--and may never--enjoy some of the most simple privileges that I enjoy as an American.

Some caveats...I've never been the flag-waving, Yankee Doodle-singing, die for my country type of person. I've always thought America is a pretty great place. Going through graduate school, of course, I learned about many of the ways America is flawed in some very, very significant ways. I absolutely don't believe there is any such thing as an "American Dream," and I think the idea of nation is largely (if not entirely) constructed by social, political, and religious ideologies.

However, I am utterly grateful for the privileges and freedoms that I am granted in this country. Do I think God loves me more than my Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Qatari, or Kenyan students? No. Do I think God has sprinkled a magic fairy dust of blessings from sea to shining sea? No. Am I superior to the people of any other country? No. Is America the best country in the world? I doubt it.

But, does a "no" answer to these questions mean that I can't be thankful for the life I'm allowed to live here? No, it does not. This is to say that over the past year I have learned to be thankful for all sorts of things that I previously took for granted. Some of these things--the right to free speech, the right to practice my religion freely, the legal freedom to own property as a single woman, etc.--are directly related to being an American. Some of these--safe drinking water, access to high-quality medical care and technology, free public education for my children--are related to being a citizen of a constantly-developing first-world country.

As a Christian, it's a habit for me to give thanks in my prayers. Thanks for the health of family, the roof over our head, clothes on our backs, food to fill our stomachs. Now, God didn't personally sew the shirt I'm wearing, but I thank Him nonetheless for blessings big and small. I thank Him not for making me an American, but for my existence in this place where I (and my family) enjoy so many privileges, freedoms, and opportunities. Some of them exist elsewhere and some don't.

I guess my point is that this gratitude, this recognition, does not mean that I think of Asians as "dirty and backward" or Africans as "poor and wretched." Actually, it has nothing at all to do with what I think of citizens of other countries or other citizens of this country (who may, in fact, be quite poor and wretched despite their being Americans). Really and truly, for me, it's about two things: recognition and thanks. I'm aware, I'm thankful, and I want to consciously work at making sure my children are as well. That may or may not overlap with patriotism, but for me it definitely isn't a consequence of any specific church practice or religious institution.


Intlxpatr said...

I love the global citizen concept - learning to see our lives through the eyes of others, and learning to see their lives through their eyes, and learning that we are all a lot more alike than we are different.

I often tell my Gulf friends - and make them laugh - that life in the Gulf is like life in Alaska. When you can go outdoors, you go outdoors all you can, and when the weather gets extreme, you go from your house to your car to the store or movie or school, and back home, avoiding the extreme temperatures as much as possible. Alaska and the Gulf - seems so opposite, and yet there are parallels.

LOL, AcadeMama, you survived your first year. You are a VETERAN! You are already an ambassador, too, telling those in your own culture that life in the Gulf is a lot more complicated than our simple stereotypes. Love this post. Alham'dallah! ;-)

Anonymous said...

For me, there's a difference between thanking God for the life that I have and thanking God for my nationality.

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