We now interrupt your in flight movie with an identity crisis

7 Jun

It’s 1am in Dubai and I’ve hunkered down in the airport to write this post as I await my nine hour flight to Johannesburg. I can’t believe it. I’m nearly there! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what this World Cup experience is going to be like and one thing that I can’t seem to shake is this feeling that I’m a sham of a football fan. Yesterday I was packing my bag and I threw in a Brazilian jersey, a Spanish Jersey, a South Africa Jersey and flag, a Ghanaian scarf, and an Ivory Coast shirt. It dawned on me that I hadn’t packed a single “American” article of clothing. I thought about it for a while and eventually decided to make a trip to Old Navy to buy a cheap t-shirt that they had been selling for Memorial Day. The t-shirt has an American flag on it, which ought to be good enough. I stuffed it at the bottom of my bag and continued packing.

I might be wrong but I think the United States is probably one of the only countries in the world where you can ask a football fan who they will be rooting for at the World Cup. I appreciate beautiful football as much as the next fan but I have to admit that I’m a bit impartial when it comes to whose playing. I can’t imagine the situation where a Brazilian loses sleep because he is torn between his love for the Dutch team’s “Total football” and the more pragmatic style that is characteristic of the German team. It’s simple; you support your own country. You can appreciate other styles of play and the handiwork of other players who are in top form, but at the end of the day you stand behind your own starting 11. At the heart of the World Cup is a sense of national pride that I will admit I lack. The stars and the stripes don’t move me and I haven’t gotten teary-eyed during the national anthem since… ever. And yet, I bought that t-shirt and I have to admit that I’ve been following all of the United States’ friendly matches in the past couple of weeks. I want to believe, as much as I disagree with the policies and practices of the United States in the world, I want to believe that we can do well in the global game, that we can add something to the beautiful game.
This identity crisis that I’m facing as I fly off to the World Cup is partly due to my confusing identity to begin with. In the United States if someone asks me “where are you from?” or “what are you?” I calmly rattle off Mexican, Spanish, Chilean, Filipino, and Armenian, “a little bit of everything” I usually say. The trouble with my mixed identity is that I can’t say that I feel strongly connected to any one race. In high school when I would have to choose one ethnicity for standardized tests I would always check the Hispanic box.

The problem is that I am full of contradictions and I don’t feel entirely connected to my Hispanic roots. I’ve actually spent more time in Spain than I have in Mexico even though I can drive to the border in a day and I’ve never been to Chile. I didn’t learn Spanish when I was growing up because my paternal grandparents decided not to teach their children. When my father was growing up there was a lot of racism/discrimination towards those who had a Spanish accent. My grandparents wanted their children to do well in school so they decided not to teach them Spanish; the burden of their skin color was enough. In some ways it seems like things have changed today, at least in California. Being able to speak both English and Spanish is a desirable characteristic and I signed up for the Spanish classes that were available at my middle school and high school. I always felt a certain amount of pressure in those classes, as if I was supposed to inherently be able to learn Spanish better than my white classmates. I’ve taken Spanish classes to the point where I am able to understand most things but still have trouble speaking it. The problem is that I’m too embarrassed to practice. When speaking Spanish, it’s cute when an Asian girl messes up while conjugating a verb but confusing and maybe even disappointing when I do the same. When I played soccer in high school my team was largely made up of Mexicans. They would laugh and joke around in Spanish amongst themselves and one of their favorite things to do was to say something to me in Spanish and ask if I understood what they said. At that point I had taken about three years of Spanish and probably had a grasp on the language equivalent to a three year old. It was just meant to be a joke and their intentions weren’t malicious but it still hurt a little. They also liked to call me a coconut, brown on the outside and white on the inside. What made this situation even more confusing is that a lot of my friends were white and when I hung out with them I was the token Mexican kid. I always found it strange that I lived in this in-between world in which truly Mexican kids rejected me and yet I was asked to play the part of a Mexican for my white friends.

My identity when I’m abroad is confusing as well. When I travel I obviously meet a lot of people. Most of the first conversations that I have with people go something like this:

Person: Where are you from?

Me: I’m from California actually.

Person: Oh, you’re an American. (Usually with a slight air of surprise)

Me: No. Well, yeah. But I’m from California.

You see, California isn’t screwing the world over, America is. I learned early on in my travels that if you say you’re from California or New York people automatically like you better than if you say you’re from America. Hell, I bet even die-hard Brits have a soft spot in their heart for California. I’m proud to be from California, I packed my California shirt long before my desperate run to Old Navy in search of something with an American flag on it. However, it’s unlikely that California will follow the Confederate states’ footsteps and attempt to secede from the union anytime soon.

“A national football team represents a way of being, a culture.”

-Michel Platini

The more I travel the more I question American culture, our hedonism, our obsession with power, and our shortsightedness.  Few Americans understand that the reason we enjoy our status as the world’s only superpower is because of the policies we have in place that have led to the repression of weaker countries. In any sporting competition, everyone loves to support the underdog. On the economic/political global stage the United States is a bully, we must be in order for us to enjoy the luxuries we have become so accustomed to. On the global football stage the United States is an underdog.

“There is no greater drama in sport than a soccer team trying to validate its national character in the World Cup.”

-Jeff Rusnak

“When our national team plays, we feel that the identity of our country is being played out on the field.”

-Luis Eduardo Soares

The 44th president wears the number 44 jersey

What is the United States trying to prove at this World Cup? Expectations are rising among fans at home and it seems like most people are ready to give the team a chance. We don’t want to get our hopes up, we fear disappointment, but we believe that there might be a sliver of hope. Hope. The four letter word that Obama ran his campaign on. The campaign culminated in Obama’s victory and was celebrated around the world. Never before had a Presidential election had such a great influence on the way the rest of the world viewed the United States. Obama symbolized a new America, an America that would rely on dialogue to create international partnerships on a number of issues. As the United States re-enters the global game of politics it steps onto the pitch this summer to play the global game of football. Perhaps this is another symbol that the days of “going it alone”, of “our way or the highway” are over, that the United States is ready to listen and to play.

In summary,

In California I am: Mexican, Spanish, Chilean, Filipino, and Armenian

In my travels I am: Californian

At the World Cup I am: Confused

Obama is clearly not a Brazilian fan


One Response to “We now interrupt your in flight movie with an identity crisis”

  1. Bruce Whitsitt June 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    Francis, what a rich experience you’re having! Does it ever strike you as extraordinary that a kid from a middle-class family in Fresno (which when I was growing up in L.A. was known as the armpit of California)would have the opportunity to go to an Ivy League school and travel the world? I am awed by this, and very happy for you.

    At the same time, I was saddened by the fact that you feel no pride in your country. I don’t blame you; that is the prevailing attitude transmitted by our culture via our institutions such as the church, schools, and univeristies. America is seen as an evil force in the world, one whose policies are imperialistic and selfish. I think you come by that shame honestly.

    However, I’d like to challenge your assumptions. I recently heard a debate between an academic progressive and Victor Davis Hanson, the classics professor from Fresno State who is now a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. The topic was, “Is America an imperialist country?” Dr. Hanson’s opening remark acknowledged the many criticisms of the USA, but he parried those criticisms with one short question: “Compared to what?” His point was that America is far from perfect; that, like any other country on earth, we have made our share of mistakes and at times have oppressed people (this is obvious and can’t be denied). However, he emphasized that no other country in the world has, at its founding, created such an ingenious mechanism for self-correction (the U.S. Constitution), nor philosophically emphasized the dignity and equality before God of every human being (the Declaration of Independence). The freedom that has become part of the American DNA has often gone off in the wrong direction, but just as often has been a beacon of hope in a dark, brutish and cruel world. The prosperity we enjoy is sometimes at the expense of other cultures, but it’s not a zero-sum game; more often than not, our prosperity spills over to immeasurably help people from all over the planet. Did you know that the USA is by far the most philanthropically generous country on earth? That billions of dollars are voluntarily donated by individuals, businesses and foundations that save millions of lives every day?

    If you look to the many countries where anguish, poverty and evil flourish, you will find that a repressive or corrupt government and unchecked tribalism is at the heart of the problem. Africa threw off the yoke of colonialism long ago, and is a continent rich in natural resources; yet it remains a nightmare of destitution, disease, and dysfunction. Many of the most dysfunctional governments there are Marxist in origin, with a good smattering of old-fashioned corruption thrown in. In Central and South America, the old Soviet Union, and China, Marxist governments have ruined economies, murdered citizens, and destroyed the environment. The countries ruled by totalitarian Islamic theocracies are nightmares of human rights atrocities and environmental catastrophies. And Europe, which embraced socialism and looked down its nose at the simplistic “cowboy” Americans for so many years is now reeling on the verge of financial disaster. So, to repeat Hanson’s question, compared to what?

    America is full of faults, but what other country has contributed as many billions to fight AIDS in Africa as we did during the last administration? Visit some of the countries in Europe that were occupied by the Nazis in WWII, and see the tens of thousands of crosses on the graves of Americans, who gave their lives to break the back of one of the most vicious and horrific regimes in the history of mankind, saved millions of lives, and then, rather than occupying the conquered in perpetuity, as the Soviets did until their collapse, gave it all back to the conquered and made them into friends; read about the tens of millions murdered, starved, imprisoned and tortured in the Soviet Union and Communist China; and then I would again ask, “America is a bad country…compared to what?”

    If you’re willing to look at the other side, perhaps you should read a new book out called The World Turned Upside Down. It was written by Melanie Phillips, a British journalist who is taking a hard, empirical look at the major controverises of the day that all tend to blame America, and she does a good job of showing another side to these issues. I would also advise the movie “The Kite Runner”, if you haven’t seen it, about Afghanistan before and after both the Soviet Invasion and during the rule of the Taliban. If you see the movie and read the book, you then might want to ask yourself: compared to what?

    Just one other note: The incredible freedom and opportunities created in our country are what allowed you, a boy from humble circumstances in Fresno, to rise in life, attend one of the most prestigious universities in America, and visit countries that you might never have imagined seeing when you were younger. Isn’t that worth some reflection?

    God bless you in your incredible adventure, Francis.

    Bruce Whitsitt

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