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Tharp On: America


The other night I was sitting at home, listening to some old cuts of recently-departed country legend George Jones. There I was, steeping in whisky and soaking in his honey-dripped honky-tonk croon, when suddenly a realization slapped me upside my sweaty, sentimental head: I am an American. That’s right—I’m an earnest, red-blooded, optimistic, two-fisted, indoor voice-challenged, tap dancin’ Yankee Doodle Dandy. Yee-haw! I was lucky enough to be born into that big, complicated, hullabaloo of a nation: 300 million of us and growing—and that’s not even counting the Mexicans.

I sometimes forget about my nationality; living for nearly a decade in a kind of self-imposed exile can do that. I am now part of a truly international community, and my attachments to home—both literal and figurative—lessen each day. Am I proud to be an American? No, but I can’t say that I’m ashamed either. Like many folks who spend time abroad, I’ve come to believe that people should be judged on personality and actions, rather than which side of the border they happened to be on whilst passing through their mother’s vagina.

But I am an American, and this is how many people see me—whether I like it or not. And I know this may come as a surprise to some of you, but there are people out there who love America—especially Korean men over the age of 60. They’re old enough remember the war, and often hold a modicum of gratitude toward good ol’ Uncle Sam. When hearing that I’m from the States, many of these friendly geezers smile, slap my back, and shout, USA very good! before asking me to come over and give their grandkids free English lessons. An American buddy was once riding in a cab and when the ancient driver found out he was from America, he stopped the car, shook my friend’s hand and said: Korea-America! Friends! Hiroshima! BOOM! Thank you!

That’s right. My friend was personally thanked for the nuking of Japan. I guess this is just one of the many perks of holding the navy blue passport.

Of course America’s image isn’t what it used to be, though I’m not convinced that it was ever so great, contrary to what they teach us at home. After all, we Americans are like slobbery, dumb dogs who just want to be loved the world over. We are actually quite needy and insecure. When we learn that, in truth, large chunks of humanity despise us, it makes us incredibly sad. We think: So what if we’ve been a bit loose with the bombings and pre-emptive invasions of nations that posed no real threat to us? That’s just tough love. We’re actually really, really nice. Come visit if you don’t believe us! We’ll bake you a pie!

We Americans have a reputation for being idiots, which I’ve always found disheartening and unfair. I try my best to disprove this prejudice (when sober enough), sometimes with good effect. Many times I’ve been abroad, talking with some European dude over a few beers, only to hear him confesses: You’re pretty smart for an American! For an American. What kind of backhanded compliment is that? Who did he expect, Yosemite Sam? That’s like saying, You’re really pretty for a burn victim. Your nose may avalanche straight into your chin like a melted ice cream cone, but your eyes have a real sparkle!

Other times I’ve encountered utter contempt when foreigners discovered my nationality, including an incredibly rude Belgian couple who blamed me for both Gulf Wars. I tried to win their favor: I voted against Bush! Twice! But they were deaf to my pleas.

Fair enough, but it does beg the question: If I am to be held responsible for America’s sins, then I can take credit for its virtues, right? So, let me take this opportunity to personally apologize for both Iraq and Vietnam… On the other hand, the Internet, jazz and the polio vaccine? That was all me, baby.

I’m heading home for a visit soon, my first in two years; the blubbery embrace of the motherland beckons, and I shall heed her call. But despite her glorious wonder, every time I go back to America I feel more and more like a square peg. The absurdity of the place keeps amplifying upon itself—from the moronic TV ads heralding the arrival of Chili’s Honey Bacon Cheezies™, to the squawking, bloviating blowhards dishing out their daily dose of senior citizen fear porn on Fox News.

Last time I was home I rode on the Greyhound Bus—or as I like to call it, White Trash Airlines—and I was absolutely sure that I was the only male on the coach who wasn’t on parole. In American, this is considered normal. Who, besides a convicted felon, would ride the bus?

But home is home, and I’ll soak it up for all its worth: I’ll eat huge sandwiches on real bread and wash them down with thick microbrews that don’t cost eight bucks a bottle; I’ll marvel at the wide open spaces—the mountains, rivers and forests—and appreciate the fact that I can get out and do something without 10 thousand other people having the exact same idea; I’ll breathe in the sweet pine air and bask in the summer sun; I’ll laugh with friends and put my arm around my family, soothed by the healing balm that is blood on blood; and on the Fourth of July, I’ll eat grilled burgers, get good and drunk, and set the sky afire with Chinese-made explosives.

Why? Because I’m an American, damn it, and blowing stuff up is my God-given right.


You can get Chris Tharp’s book Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea on Amazon or Whatthebook.com

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet


Illustration by Michael Roy. See more of his work at: www.michaelroyart.com

‘American Beauty’ by Henrich Kimerling

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