Home. For me that’s been a house, an apartment, maybe even a neighborhood, and, at certain points in my life, a bar. But it has never been a term I associate with any monolithic ideal of a country, especially not the United States, even though I’ve lived here all my life. I’m not one to go around waving the flag screaming “USA! USA!—I actually find that sort of behavior rather scary. This observation angers a lot of people and usually elicits a response like, “Well, then, if you don’t feel at home here, why don’t you go back to your own damn country?”
It’s similar to the reaction you’ll often get if you tell someone you don’t believe in God. I actually do believe in some sort of God, but not the one that requires that you bow down before him and praise him (and this God is, invariably, always a he). But when someone automatically assumes that I share his or her vision of God, I’ll more often than not say something shocking to get that person to change the subject or, better yet, leave me alone.
The difference is that although you can conceal what you believe or don’t believe, if someone thinks you look like you’re from another country, there’s nothing you can do to conceal this. I remember riding a Greyhound bus through the southwestern United States in the 80s. Every now and then state troopers would hop on at rest stops, right before we thought we’d be moving on again. The troopers would go down the aisle of the bus, looking at the passengers. When they got to me, they’d have questions, such as, “Do you have your passport?” or “Do you have your papers?” One time, a trooper even asked me if I had my birth certificate.
“No, I don’t have my birth certificate,” I answered. “I’m a citizen. I have a driver’s license if you want to see it.”
After I offered my driver’s license, the trooper would then move down the aisle to see if there was anyone else who looked like an illegal alien.
Sometimes I’m able to laugh, as when the parents of the bride at a wedding I attended asked (when I introduced myself to them in English, the only language I speak) what language I was speaking (they’d had a few drinks). Then, there was another time at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in Washington, DC, when a drunken woman demanded I tell her what country I’m from.
“I’m from here,” I told her.
She then started to speak more loudly, and more slowly, as if that would make me understand her question, “I. SAID. WHERE. ARE. YOU. FROM?”
That’s when I usually walk away from a conversation that’s obviously going nowhere.
I don’t get the question about my origin much, here in Front Royal. What I do get is that look, as one time when I went into the South Street Diner with Heather and Maggie and a middle aged woman suddenly lifted her head up when I entered and gawked. Then there was that time Heather and I took a break during the day and ate at L-Dee’s on Main Street and a man sitting across from us practically stared at me the entire time. Leaving the diner, we saw a car with a bumper sticker saying “If You Can Read This Thank A Teacher. If You Can Read This In English Thank A Soldier!”
I think the odds were at least even that that car belonged to the guy who stared at me.
This past week, though, when I picked Maggie up from her summer camp, one of her friends asked me, “Are you from China?” I wasn’t quite sure how she felt about my looking like I’m from somewhere else.
“Well,” I answered, “I was born here. But my parents are from the Philippines.”
“The Philippines?” she said. “Wow! That’s awesome!”
It’s not often that I get such an enthusiastic response regarding my heritage. And when I was her age I wasn’t enthusiastic about it either. I wanted to be an American, a real American, and it took me years to realize that I already was a real American, despite what some people may think. Because my America includes people who can trace their heritage to South America, Africa, and Asia, not just Europe. It also includes people who just stepped off a plane as recently as yesterday. And people who somehow walked, or swam here.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t still feel like a visitor here much of the time, like someone who was passing through but whose car broke down on Main Street.
Main Street—it’s not where I wanted to be stranded, but then I couldn’t afford to be stranded on Park Avenue in New York or even M Street in DC. Now, Main Street is where I go whenever I feel like stepping out of the house for a walk. No more leisurely strolls up Broadway toward Times Square for me, no promenading across the Duke Ellington Bridge over Rock Creek Park. It’s Main Street for me, where I sit at one of the iron tables outside the Daily Grind on nice days, sipping my coffee.
The last time I sat there I had a song going through my head. It didn’t seem like the right place for me to think about this song, but there I was, hearing Rahsaan Roland Kirk doing his version of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”:
He put all of his soul
into a tenor saxophone
He had his way of talking,
’twas a language all his own
Life’s story – Love and Glory
If you listen
While he plays it for you
and dig it
Can’t you dig it?
Lester Young is playing
what he’s feeling
Dealing and dancing on home.
But was he really saying “home” at the end? I was never quite sure about that last line, whether he actually sang the word “home” or had just stopped the words and began to hum, like someone on a long, long walk who has to do something to pass the time until he gets wherever he’s going.