Returning an American

By Victoria Knobloch

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Daily Collegian – Sept. 9, 2011 | Daily Collegian – Sept. 12, 2001

Courtesy of MCT

I am an American, but I didn’t know what those words meant until I left America.

I turned 19 on a beach in Vietnam, part of a three-month trip through Southeast Asia. When people ask what I did on my trip I tell them I bummed around, because there’s no way to sum up the value of simply experiencing another country. I came away changed, as most people do from such epic wanderings, but I didn’t just find myself.

I discovered just how important being an American is to my identity.

We talk a lot in this country about patriotism, but, especially as a child, it means little. I said the Pledge of Allegiance every day in grade school until I hit my rebellious, too-much-eye-makeup phase in middle school.
I took after my parents, participating in local elections from as early as fourth grade –
although that mostly consisted of screaming as loud as I could at passing cars and waving signs.

I didn’t fully understand our foreign policy or what going to war really meant in practical terms, but I was so mad the day we bombed Baghdad I kicked my locker hard enough to dent it. It seems naïve and showy now, but I was 13, that was my whole personality.

Watching Sept. 11 happen live on television, I knew it was a great tragedy and a direct attack on Americans which I still believe today. But the complexities of the political decisions that followed were lost on me. I blindly put myself into the liberal politics of my childhood. I didn’t think about myself as an American, but as the wacky radical girl with the green hair.

I went to Southeast Asia because the travel is cheap and “Apocalypse Now” is my favorite movie. I had visions of a jungle boat journey of my own, filled with less Vietnam War and more delicious food. I wandered through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, lounging on beaches, riding on motorbikes, visiting temples, museums, backpacker bars and grungy hostels. The sheer difference in culture is enough to make you evaluate your whole lifestyle. From food to toilets to language to religion, day-to-day living made my home feel just a bit off upon return.

But more than just being a tourist, Vietnam made me feel more American than I had in my entire life.

I got my fantasy river boat trip riding in the luggage room in the back of a rickety wooden tourist shuttle. I spent two days sitting on backpacks, feet dangling out the window into the water that looked like chocolate milk, listening to the Rolling Stones and The Doors. My companions in the small compartment were three, stoned Canadian men and one tripping Australian, who took turns offering me drugs, staring at the scenery like it was on fire and grilling me about my ridiculous American political opinions.
I don’t believe that these young men represent their countries, or non-Americans in general, but they gave me my first taste of what we really looked like from the outside.

They didn’t believe that the entirety of America hadn’t voted for George W. Bush. I foolishly tried to explain the Electoral College and hanging chads, but I don’t even expect Americans to understand that. They laughed at my statistics but stared blankly as I recited headlines from the ongoing primary bonanza between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And most baffling to me, they firmly believed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to be planned, executed and financed by the U.S. government.

I explained to them that I am no fan of Dubya, believe Dick Cheney might actually be an evil robot and that the events of 9/11 were inappropriately used to enter illegal wars and feed Americans’ fear and bloated pride. But despite all that, for the first time ever I came to the defense of my nation’s government. Blazed and confused, the three backpackers looked at me like I was crazy. When I finally returned, the first essay I wrote when I came to UMass was titled “I am an American and I am not an idiot.”

But Vietnam was its own trying boat journey. I knew something about Vietnam War history before going since I’d taken a class on it in high school. I picked up a couple books on the topic while I was there and read about battle sights as I road past them on a bus. Over six weeks I learned and witnessed a complex story of colonialism, nationalism, pride and devastating victory. I went to every historical site I could. I spent an afternoon having tea with a retired Viet Cong general and listened to him express feelings about his country that mirrored my own. The narrative of fighting the largest military power in the world with guerilla tactics in the name of freedom is not an unfamiliar narrative to Americans. I also understood his stories of national promises turned to national lies.

Obviously there are some critical differences between our two situations, and like everything else of this nature, it’s complicated. But there’s a reason Americans and Vietnamese are both obsessed with their flag, and it’s not aesthetic.

And then there was the truth of American foreign policy and the even more devastating truth about war. I went to an awful lot of museums and historical sites and left, time and time again, in tears. There was repulsion and horror at what America as a country and Americans as a people can do, but more than anything else there was a feeling of responsibility.

When I came home I cried for the first time while watching 9/11 footage. It was now more than a headline. It was an attack on the idea of America, on an idea I don’t agree with all the time, one that can, and has, lead to terrible atrocities.

Regardless, it is part of me and I am proud to be a part of it.

Victoria Knobloch is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]