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I didn’t really know that I was an American until I came to India.
Of course, I’ve always known cognitively that I am an American: I’ve always known that I come from a country called America comprised of fifty states, bald eagles, and red white and blue. When grinning Indian men ask “Where are you from?” I don’t have any hesitation in answering them. But I have come to realize that I never really understood what it meant.
Growing up in America, it always seemed to possess such endless diversity. I never had a good sense of what fundamentally ties us all together. America was as big as the world. America was my world. I was one weirdo in one corner of a very large country; I could, in some ways, wrap my mind around that. I had no reason to think of myself as one American in a larger global tapestry, indeed, no ability to do so.
But in India, I am self-consciously and un-avoidably American. There are plenty of white Europeans along the streets, but they hold themselves differently, and walk with a different pace. There are an absurd number of young Israelis, and they all bear an uncanny resemblance to the semi-hippie crowd that we went to college with. And there are plenty of Indians with a strong grasp of English and a working knowledge of American culture.
But none of them are American. I can feel it. I’m not sure what it is that I feel, but I know that I’m missing something.
Coming back from Rishikesh was difficult for us. As we settled in to the chaos of Main Bazaar, we realized how overwhelming it was. Indeed, we realized that we had even been overwhelmed our first time on Main Bazaar, but we had been too overwhelmed to realize it.
They say that “culture shock,” that “homesickness,” that all the psychological ailments that accompany long term travel come in waves, and when we got back from Rishikesh, we were definitely at an uncomfortable crest. Yet God must have greater designs for our time here: how lavishly he tended to our homesickness!
We finally did make it to the Government Tourist Office, and they directed us to a stellar tour agent, India Travel Consultant. Not only did he offer us a fair price, but his way of doing business was familiar to us as Americans. Even his accent and mannerisms also had American overtones, making us feel right at home. This was all a welcome relief from the pushy Kashmiri tour-wallahs who pulled us in on Main Bazaar: they always seemed a little slick to us, and were not comfortable people to deal with.
Despite miscommunications, phone malfunctions, and a host of other difficulties, we did manage to connect with my brother when he was in Delhi, and spent the better part of a day with him and his friend Steve. We loved hearing about the progress of his study abroad program, the good times and the hard times he had encountered, and his perceptions of Indian culture. Our time together was a breath of fresh air in the midst of the dusts of Delhi.
Jon and Steve were going to try to come out the next day as well: unfortunately, this didn’t work out. But, as it turned out, God had other things in mind. Brian Hall, an acquaintance from CC, was passing through Delhi on his way back home from volunteer teaching in Nepal. He spied us amidst the chaos of Main Bazaar, and we sat down for tea. We talked all through the afternoon about life, ambitions, dreams, faith, adventures: we were extremely blessed by our coincidental encounter.
Now my family has arrived, and we have a while to do the “tourist” thing. It is a welcome break from our grueling experiments in listening actively to Indian culture, and our struggles to find what God wants of us here.
I still don’t know exactly what it means to be an American, but I do know that it runs very deep. It’s more than flag waving, more than voting; more than a word, more than a country of origin.
American is what we expect, how we solve problems, what we think is important. American is how we are brought up, our basic instincts about the world and about people. American is the common thing that we are all trying to define and defend when we divide ourselves into competing groups, like Democrats and Republicans, Christians and Atheists, For X and Against X. It is what we think before we start thinking: it is as close to our identity as our breath is to our life. It is an outlook cultivated within us slowly, over the course of our public life and decisions.
We can hardly identify, much less discuss such deep, formative attitudes and behaviors. But the struggle to do so is meaningful and transformative, and this is the struggle we are called to.