I wasn’t made in America, which means that I’m a typical American.
I was conceived in Denmark (there were fat babies then, too—the rich pastries my mother ate during her “confinement” created a baby so big that I pulled my grandmother’s shimmery amber necklace right off her neck the very day I was born). I grew up on the wild, rugged Cornish coast of England and was sent to school in the Orkney Islands, crossing the sea in a light plane. Next stop, France—where children wore clogs to class—then eight years among the bears in the everlasting snows of the Himalayas, followed by a marriage in Spain during the frightening days of martial law under General Franco. I remember creeping about with my American husband, hoping not to be stopped and deported by the ubiquitous military police in their Gestapo-like high leather boots and Jodhpur trousers.
My home is now Norfolk, Virginia, a town that once saw Civil War battles and is now home to midshipmen and mermaid statues. Today, you can describe the people of America by talking about the people of Uganda, Uruguay, or Utah, and that’s something to be pleased about. All our citizens, no matter what their origins, are preoccupied with the same concerns: their worries about their relationships, their children, their own health and mortality. Some are bursting with love, some are scarred with hate, but most are full of mixed emotions, tormented by indecision or certain that they are right, hopeful or despondent, sometimes one and sometimes the other, perhaps, and all intent upon experiencing as much happiness and as little pain as possible.
That’s why I can talk about Americans by talking about something I once witnessed in India. It was a broiling-hot day, and I was stuck in a taxi in the city, unable to make any progress because of some commotion in the road ahead. On the bridge beside the road, I noticed a woman dressed in a tattered piece of green cloth. She was barefoot, of course, and was sitting on a tiny strip of scrounged matting with her baby, who was naked except for a string around his bottom. The bridge was clearly their home, and this being India, people were coming and going in great numbers but carefully trying to skirt this little patch, avoiding stepping onto her matting and thereby into her “living room.” The woman had a steel pot and a few belongings in a bundle. As I watched, she rose and removed a handful of boiled rice from the hem of her skirt, bent down, and picked up a flat leaf. She placed the rice on the leaf and pushed it a few inches away from her and the baby. A mother street dog appeared. The dog inched up the curb, wagging her tail very softly, humbly, her head down in a submissive pose. The woman let the mother dog eat, squatting beside her and guarding her as she took her meager meal, giving her confidence that she was safe from a mean outburst or a thrown rock.
It struck me then that helping others creates a bond that transcends all differences, just as understanding and sacrifice are universal values too. In that instance on the bridge, all of these were present. They were present, too, when a plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington one winter, its wing flaps too frozen to move. People of all ethnicities and nationalities, for it was Washington, D.C., after all, were caught in their cars on that bridge. The news footage showed some people abandoning their cars and fleeing on foot. But others leaned over the bridge railing, frantically trying to determine whether there was anything that they could do, anything at all, even shouting encouragement over the wind and the snow to the passengers trying to stay alive in the frigid water below. Miraculously, some passengers had emerged from the wreckage, although most were trapped within the twisted metal body of the plane.
When tales were told afterward, it was no surprise that, finding themselves in a cabin filling up with ice water, some people had trampled and shoved aside other passengers in their panic to stay alive. But one man, an American, remained in the river, his body half out of the plane, half in, using his strength to help hoist other, less able or disoriented passengers out of the wreckage and attach them to the dangling rope that pulled them away to safety. He helped for as long as he could before his fingers and feet froze and he died. I am sure that he did not ask or care where anyone was from.
America is called the “melting pot” because it is home to people of all races, creeds, colors, and religions, including those who have fled persecution and intolerance. Yet America is not perfect in any way, and among our citizens, we have the best and the worst and the middling. Within a few generations, the young often forget or even disavow their grandparents’ or earlier ancestors’ migrations, but no one can alter the fact that all of us, even those of us called Native Americans, are from somewhere else.
And all of us are, in the ways that really count, simply inhabitants of planet Earth.