’ll be honest. I’m not much of a patriot, and I never really have been. As a child, I would put on the English accent I learned from BBC rebroadcasts and fool random strangers into thinking I was visiting from London. While on a high-school trip to Toronto, I took great pride in the overheard remark that I was the only one in my group who didn’t stick out as an American. To this day, I’ll be out in public, and because I pronounce some word oddly, or because I’m wearing a flat cap
, people will swear I’m not American, and, to use a very non-American word, I’m chuffed
I think our primary and secondary education systems in the United States have devolved so as to rob our young people of creative and critical-thinking skills, rendering them less capable of dissent. The American health-care system has nothing to do with health or care, and everything to do with lining the pockets of the few. The rapid consolidation of mass media chips away at the freedom of speech Americans so cherish. Day by day, the nation careens further to the right, jeopardizing the lives and livelihoods of anyone who is not healthy, white, heterosexual, Christian, upper-class, and male.
Suffice it to say, I’m not one to wear my nationality as a badge of pride.
I am friends with a promising young writer in Nigeria. We’ve developed a good professional relationship. We recommend books to each other, commiserate over the struggles of being a writer, offer encouragement. I enjoy connecting with someone (across an insane nine-hour time difference) who is on a path similar to my own.
But for all our similarities, I’m discovering the cultural differences are greater than I first imagined. I suppose it’s because I’m cautious about being sure not to paint my perception of other countries with too broad a stroke. As an American, I have been indoctrinated to think of the continent of Africa as a single country where everyone is starving, and I have spent my adulthood undoing that narrative by educating myself. Nigeria is as complex as the United States, in its history, culture, and economics.
My conversations with my writer friend complicate my Nigerian narrative even further. I’ve learned that many Nigerians are frustrated with the quality of their universities, but struggle to see any change on the horizon. The economic corruption that Americans only see in the form of spam e-mails from Nigerian princes is a lived reality for millions. And it feels awfully privileged for my American compatriots to fight for the right to have their same-sex marriages recognized in the public sphere, when in Nigeria, and a number of other countries, public acknowledgement of being gay is punishable by death.
So I have to admit that I have a good deal of privilege as a citizen of the United States. I can obtain treatment for my psychiatric disabilities, whereas in much of the world, I’d be expected to simply solider through when I’m at most debilitated. I can live in many parts of the country as an out gay man, and as time goes on, the areas where I can’t grow fewer and further between. Even if I am lower-class by American standards, compared to the rest of the world, I live a quite comfortable life.
This isn’t to say that everything is perfect. Access to health care in the United States is terribly uneven. In 2004, I suddenly moved six hundred miles away, sight unseen, because I lost my health insurance, and because I have medication I must take daily, I needed to relocate to a state that offered freer access to health care. There are still swaths of the United States where I worry that the way I speak or dress or walk might compromise my safety. And though, by global standards, I live in luxury, I know it wouldn’t take much—an extended illness, a layoff—to lose my home and possessions.
What I’m trying to get at is that American identity is complicated. Just like Nigerian identity. Just like any identity. There are always myriad intersecting factors. And you can simultaneously be grateful for what you have and fight for a better world.