“Happy Confused National Identity Day!”
I received this text message from a TCK (third-culture kid) friend on the 4th of July a few years ago. As TCKs, our emotions about national holidays range from patriotism to ambivalence to loathing—often simultaneously.
I find that anything about patriotism triggers a foundational uneasiness that turns my stomach to knots and makes my fingers tremble.
I’m an American citizen. Hurray for Independence Day! Bring on the fireworks and barbecue! But I didn’t celebrate American Independence Day until junior high, when we moved back to the States; instead, I spent much of my childhood in Panama, celebrating basically the entire month of November. ¡Feliz Día de la Independencia! Bring on parades, pollera dancers, food, and fireworks!
I tear up when I hear a particularly moving rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. I also tear up for the Panamanian Himno Istmeño. I appreciate all the rights and privileges I have as a U.S. citizen and take pride in the struggles and accomplishments of Americans through the years. Although I don’t have Panamanian citizenship, I also feel a deep sense of sharing in the struggles and accomplishments of the Panamanian people.
And I have it easy; I only have two countries tugging at my heart. I have friends whose identities are a fusion of five or six different countries, and I know there are people out there who claim even more.
Pain rises on this day of patriotism. As I sing the national anthem, I feel that I betray my Panamanian heart. As people around me pledge allegiance to a flag I’ve lived under only half my life, guilt washes over me: I don’t feel national pride. America is nice. So are other countries. Most of the world’s counties celebrate independence; the entire globe is an ever-shifting puzzle of revolutions.
Whereas Americans seem to feel patriotism as a call to support their country, I feel it as a call to disown my identity. Just like the horrifying “Where are you from?”, patriotism asks me to make an impossible choice.
Usually on the 4th of July, I choose to ignore patriotism and focus on the celebration—delicious food and synthetic stars fired into the night sky.
This 4th of July, I choose something different: to celebrate. Tonight, as I watch fireworks flare above the Manhattan skyline, I will allow myself to celebrate American freedom.
And in November, though I won’t be in the country to see the parades, I will celebrate Panamanian freedom.
Because freedom is worth celebrating wherever it appears.
To the other TCKs out there: Remember that you’re not alone. There a hundreds, thousands of us feeling this juxtaposition of conflicting emotions, this pressure to choose. Remember that celebrating one home does not mean you’ve renounced the others. You have the incredible opportunity to expand your heart and love so many different cultures, people, and traditions. Celebrate them all. If you feel patriotic, wonderful! But remember, too, that it’s okay to feel neutral, even on Independence Day. You’re unique.
Today, I remind you of this freedom: the freedom to feel as much or as little as you need for as many places as your heart can hold.