A few months ago, I was teaching at a writer’s conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Three white writer friends and I (also white, visually speaking—my father was half Mexican, but you’d never know by looking at me) went to a posh rooftop restaurant. The place was mostly empty, but the staff refused to seat us for over a half an hour. Finally, my friend went to inquire about the wait, and the waitress told her off. She said, “Get out. We don’t want your kind. There are already too many of you here.” Stunned, we left.
But I wasn’t outraged, or even hurt, really. My father looked Mexican, so something in me felt I’d finally experienced a kind of blind hatred he’d probably experienced more often than he ever told me. I finally knew what it was to be my father’s daughter. And a fraction of what it probably felt like to be a minority in America, where this sort of thing happens to them every day. Also, since I had visited that restaurant multiple times in years past, the most recent being the year before, with absolutely no virulence directed my way, I was intellectually interested in what the incident said about the way in which other countries view America in the wake of the Trump presidency.
After leaving Mexico, I went to France to tour high schools that had been studying my books in their English classes. I had the time of my life in one of the most glorious places on earth. But while the organization that hosted me, and the teachers, and the students, were nothing short of gracious, I did sometimes notice heightened chilliness directed at me in public. (The last time I visited France was 2016.) Multiple people said snide things about America—her role in creating the crisis in the Middle East, Trump, our insane obsession with guns–daring me to disagree, clearly assuming I would be offended by their words. All I said in any of these instances was, “I agree with you.”
Because I do. Right now, I am disgusted with my country on so many levels. And yet, when a woman laughed, “You’re so American,” after, out of habit, I went to hug her instead of kissing her cheeks (the customary greeting in France), I felt no shame. My only answer was, “Yes, I was born and raised in America. Therefore, I am American.” I am embarrassed by my country’s president, by her willingness to let her children be slaughtered in the interest of placating a powerful (and rich) group of lobbyists, by her misogyny and her racism and her homophobia and her history of cruelty and her ignorance.
But I am not ashamed of the other things that make me American. I don’t think I’m dumb just because I’m American. I happen to be very smart. I don’t think my accent is ugly. God help my thighs, I don’t even hate her food. I have a long-standing love/hate relationship with Pringles and M&Ms. I think her music kicks ass, even the poppy stuff. Truth be told, the first thing I did in the airport in Paris, just before my flight home, was buy a bunch of junk food and listen to Bon Jovi (I know, but I love him) on full blast. I missed my home. And I’m sorry. I don’t think all Hollywood films are Neanderthal and ridiculous. Some are brilliant. I refuse to be ashamed of the things about America that are simply part of her rich and varied culture, and I refuse to be ashamed because I was born here.
When I stepped off the plane in America, I was so happy to be back. Whatever flaws my country may have, I love her with a love that becomes more intense every time I leave her shores. There are so, so many beautiful things about this place I was born. I’m not saying she’s the greatest place on earth. She’s not. I don’t need her to be to love her. I’m not saying she’s quantitatively better than anywhere else. It’s not about a pissing contest with other countries. It’s about love. And we all know the heart is a wild and unpredictable force whose decisions to love often defy logic (thank God, or none of us would ever love, or be loved by, anyone or anything). I have driven through every state except Alaska, and my country’s natural beauty is nothing short of mind bending. Her cities are dazzling. Her countryside is breathtaking. Her people are wondrous.
So many of the Americans I know and love are brilliant, kind, deep thinkers with a profound interest in impacting their country, and their world, in a positive way. I am a writer, so in the course of the activities surrounding my career, I regularly meet and become intimately acquainted with many great American artists who are making incredible strides, creatively, intellectually, and politically. My children are American. My parents are American. My brother and his beautiful children are American. The love of my life is American. My dearest friends are American. To say I hate America is to sell so much of what (and who) I love down the river.
For me, some of that beauty was demonstrated today, when elementary, high school, and college students across America walked out of their classes to protest our government’s refusal to commit to gun control. Granted, I am jetlagged and weepy, having just completed a 30-hour trek home from France, but seeing some of the photos of these protests made me cry. This is what is right about America. We can do these things. We do do these things. Not all of us are uneducated yahoos whose only knowledge of politics is a slogan on a (frankly ugly) red hat. Not all of us value our right to an arsenal over the lives of our children. Not all of us view people from other countries as dangerous. Not all of us fear the proverbial other. Not all of us want to keep those who aren’t like us down.
Also, while it’s easy to imagine other countries as utopias free from the struggles we grapple with on a daily basis, other cultures aren’t perfect either. When I was in France, I was exposed to an incident of sexism like nothing I have ever seen in the U.S. (I’m not ready to write about it yet.) I spoke to a lesbian woman who told me that if her work found out she was gay, she feared she would lose her job. Does this make France bad? God, no. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. It just means that there is work to be done everywhere. In other news, I spoke on a panel with a Turkish poet who was living in exile in France, who received death threats every day for speaking out against his government, who feared that he would be imprisoned (or worse) if he were sent home. Does this mean Turkey is evil? No. I’ve been there too. Turkey is beautiful. But like America, she is broken in many ways.
As backward as America is on some issues (gun control, for instance), we are making progress on other key issues. And we aren’t all ready to lay down and let this blundering thug of a president destroy us. Trump can bluster on, but he is only one man. There are millions of us tirelessly working to make America great– not again, because if I look at her history of racism and sexism and brutality on so many fronts, I can’t really in good conscience say she’s ever been anywhere near great.
She’s fucked up. But like everything I’ve ever loved, I love her spite of her glaring flaws. I love her enough that I want her to be something better. And I love her enough to stay here, to speak out, to be a voice and a force for change, so that someday, we can really say she’s great. You’ll probably never catch me wearing a weird red baseball cap emblazoned with clunky white lettering, but you might find me wearing a tastefully tailored T-shirt, maybe boasting an eye-popping design created by my brilliant daughter, who is an astoundingly gifted graphic novelist and burgeoning fashion designer. It would say, “Make America great for the first time ever.”