When I was a teenager, all I wanted was to live outside of the United States. My parents and relatives had lived overseas before I was born and I was utterly bored with the idea of living in America. I wanted adventure and excitement—cool stories to tell my friends. And although I believed I had noble intentions for wanting to be a missionary, wanting an adventurous life was undoubtedly at least part of my motivation. I couldn’t even fathom living in the United States as an adult.
When I was 19, I spent four months studying abroad in Israel and Palestine. I loved living in the Middle East and thought for sure that I was meant to live there later again as a missionary. But before I knew it, six years had flown by living in the United States and in that time, I lived in four different states and understood my own country differently than I did as a teenager. At 25, I could se the complexity and beauty of the United States buI still longed for adventure, for cultures beyond our borders so I decided to live abroad again, this time in Europe.
The nearly five months I spent living in Europe were beyond what I could have ever expected. In so many ways, it was better than I imagined it could be. I got to go with one of my best friends, travel to nine new countries, and make life-long friendships. I got to learn shades of nuance and insight that I never knew existed.
But it was also a season filled with all the challenges that expats know well— frustrating trips to the grocery store, longing for foods you can only get at home, mountains of visa paperwork, embarrassing moments of not understanding the local customs, and the million small things challenges each day living outside your home country. Even under the most luxurious and ideal circumstances, living in a foreign country was difficult, confusing, frustrating, and isolating. I gained more empathy than ever for immigrants of all kinds.
I thought living in Prague would make me fall in love with Europe and make me want to stay forever. I thought I would be the kind of person who doesn’t miss America at all. But to my great surprise, living in Europe not only made me miss my friends and my home, it also made me miss my country. By leaving America, I learned to love it anew.
No one was more surprised than me to realize that I love my country, for I have spent my entire adult life saying that I don’t “feel patriotic.” I was gone during an important tumultuous time for America— the deeply painful Kavanaugh hearings and the historic midterm elections. Listening to the dialogue and discourse from afar reminded me how much I love the people of my country. When someone tried to compliment me by telling his friends that I’m “not like most Americans” all I could say was, “I hope not!” When I think of Americans, I think of my friends, family, and neighbors— hardworking, loving, ever-learning, and always imperfect.
Living in Europe fostered a new sense of patriotism in me that I’ve never had before. It’s not the ugly America First kind of patriotism that pretends America was once great and willfully ignores our painful, harmful, racist past and present. I found within me a gritty, unpolished, and hard-won kind of patriotism.
Gritty patriotism has its eyes wide open. It says neither “Make America Great Again” nor “America Is Already Great.” Instead, it says “America is a paradox; in equal parts great and terrible, resilient and stubborn, beautiful and destructive.” I love paradoxes—two things that seemingly cannot be true at the same time and yet are. The Bible, and even faith itself, is full of paradoxes and they comfort me in the chaotic and messy world I see around me. I know too much about America to love it comfortably. From the Mayflower carrying my ancestors to Plymouth Rock to the Gold Rush that brought them to California, my own family’s story is interwoven into our country’s history of genocide and erasure. America’s story is of resilience, heroism, creativity, innovation, honor, and community. At the same time, America’s story is filled with colonization, genocide, slavery, black exclusion laws, redlining, Japanese internment camps, forced Native American board schools, Jim Crow laws, legal discrimination, and far more pain than we can bear to look at. If you’re paying attention, it’s enough to make you weep and then make you very, very angry. How could you ever love a country like ours?
It’s a question I asked myself often those past five months. The more I grew to love my country, the more I asked myself, Am I even allowed to love my country? It’s certainly not the woke thing to say. It’s not a very “progressive” or “liberal” thing to say that you love your country, but it strikes me as a truly American sentiment nonetheless. I am often inspired by the words of James Baldwin—-
Now that I have been back in America for a few weeks, I’m reminded that America is perhaps not as great as my homesick rose-colored glasses might have suggested. America is not as easy to love up close as it is from afar, but I won’t give up on it yet. Loving my country means criticizing it, not from an armchair, but from the city streets and garden soils. I criticize my country while I work to make it better. Loving my country means working so that we can live up to the incredible standards we set for ourselves but have never once been realized— that all persons are created equal.
When I would ask my European friends what they perceived about Americans they would often respond, “You Americans are so optimistic.” It’s a quality I took for granted back home, but being around my beloved German, British, and Czech friends, I realized they were right. Americans are restlessly, foolishly optimistic and that makes me so very proud. I am proud of the relentless optimism that looks at 400 years of tragedy and say, “we will be the generation to do better.” I am proud of the gritty optimism of people of faith that says, “next year in Jerusalem… inshallah…” I am proud of the optimism of Americans that has sent men to the moon and given women the courage to sit down on busses and break down the doors of the powerful. It turns out, I am even proud to be an American.
So thank you, Europe, for teaching me love my country. I will miss your public transportation and endless bakeries, but I’m back to the home and work I am called to do.