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American identity

Raising a family half a world away from the country where neither one of us was born but which we proudly call home has led to a good deal of soul searching regarding our identities.

Will our children identify as American if they live the bulk of their childhood overseas and miss out on the quintessential cultural experiences that are central to American identity? Spending the summer in the States has helped Munchkin shed his East African accent, for example, but when asked where home is he still reliably answers, “Kigali.” And though he clearly enjoyed his Maine vacation, he was also overjoyed to return “home to his brown house” – to reclaim ownership of all of his favorite toys, see our dog Emmie, and play with Kate, our housekeeper and Munchkin’s erstwhile companion.

The question of identity, of course, is much more encompassing than our children’s self-identification. What does it mean to be an American living overseas given the current state of American politics? We are happy to miss the non-stop campaign coverage that passes for news during election years, but missing out on the political discourse and activism on issues on which we hold strong beliefs is another thing entirely. We vote, of course, but sending in an absentee ballot every couple of years hardly feels commensurate to the political involvement we see from our friends via social media. It is challenging to be engaged when one lives half a world away – we recognize the importance of the issues at stake, but the sense of immediacy is sometimes lacking.

And what does it mean to represent the American government abroad at a time when some of our nation’s most hideous skeletons have emerged from the closet of history? This is not an easy question, though it is also not unique to this day and age. Because of the force of American ideals and the dominant role the United States has played on the international stage for the better part of the last century, our government’s record invites constant scrutiny and not infrequent charges of hypocrisy.

Scrutiny, of course, is only unwelcome if one is uninterested in engaging one’s faults or unwilling to learn from past mistakes. It is imperative to denounce hate and prejudice – they have no place in the America we love – but simply disavowing the unsavory elements of our nation’s history is not enough. We must also confront our nation’s missteps – both past and present – if we hope to continue bending the arc of our country’s progress towards a more humane, inclusive, and respectful society.

One final thought: for a nation of 320 million whose founders embraced freedom of speech as a bedrock principle, homogeneity of views is neither possible nor desirable. There are bound to be views expressed by our compatriots and political leaders with which we disagree, and some we find abhorrent. It is not the content of those views that we hold dear or defend in serving as our nation’s ambassadors overseas. Rather, what makes us proud to go to work every day and represent the United States are the freedoms, including the freedom of expression, which undergird even the speech with which we vehemently disagree.

For despite the recent outbursts of bigotry, the United States continues to hold out the promise of a better, freer future for millions of people around the world. It is the promise that led D’s family to seek refuge in the United States twenty-five years ago. It is an ideal that we are proud to defend – not just by championing the many things that America does get right, but also by working to support these same freedoms in our Foreign Service postings around the world.

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