Maybe the biggest difference between the Dutch and the Americans is the American need for patriotic display. The only time the Dutch wave the national flag or play the national anthem (instrumentally–most people don’t know the lyrics past the first three lines) is during an international soccer game. Here in America you can’t turn your head without seeing some form of the red-white-and-blue spirit.
It ranges from the innocent, childish even, like obediently waving little flags on command at a presidential speech, to the more serious displays with a rather sinister undertone. The “if you’re not with us, you must be against us” situations, of which there were quite a few after 9-11.
That’s when the teachers at my kids’ Montessori school in South Texas started to say the pledge of allegiance, their three-year-old charges solemnly holding their hands over their hearts. Maria Montessori would turn in her grave if she heard about it, but what do they know?
That’s when the cashiers at the grocery store were handing out little American flags. When I said “No, thank you,” one woman responded loudly and incredulously with “You don’t want one?!”
For a split second I thought that everybody in the store would freeze, the background music would stop, and honking alarms would start going off, because I had committed the crime of just getting my groceries instead of being an American getting my American groceries the American way.
I imagined having to make a run for the door before steel bars came down, blocking my escape and leaving me to face the masses, which by then would be out for blood. But no, she wasn’t quite loud enough.
Somewhere in between childish enthusiasm and the suspicion that you’re a terrorist if you turn down small flags is the singing of the national anthem at sports events. It’s definitely serious. Whether it’s a professional hockey game, a university basketball game, or a little league game, first the anthem must be sung.
So you’ve just settled down–at a hockey game, say–after having wobbled and balanced yourself past people already seated in your aisle, with your popcorn and drinks, relieved that again you managed not to trip and fall all over the people in the aisle in front of you.
You sigh a deep sigh and wipe your brow, ready to finally relax and enjoy the game. But no. “Please rise for the national anthem,” the loudspeaker says, and you must stand up again, put your hand over your heart and face the flag. I stand, with my hands behind my back in what I feel is a reasonably respectful manner, because I make it a point to never, ever sing to or make promises to flags.
I usually have no idea where the flag is, but I just have to look around and see in which direction all the noses are pointed, and sure enough, there it is. It’s huge. How could I have missed it?
Then somebody–often a high school student–sings the anthem at a mike. Some people sing along, some people just listen, and I take note of who is taking note of the fact that I don’t have my hand over my heart.
Of course, the smaller the crowd, the more people notice. So at the neighborhood swim meet, where small children splash their way laboriously across the pool, I get the most disapproving looks. You’d think we were sending troops off to war instead of making kids belly-flop themselves into five feet of warm water.
It’s just a game. A bunch of men hitting a puck across the ice or the neighborhood kids having fun. Do Americans really need this periodic reminder of who they are and which country they’re in? I think most people know.
In the unlikely event that we’re suddenly struck by collective amnesia concerning our geographic whereabouts, we can always look at our kids’ t-shirts. Belterra Marlins. Oh right, Belterra, our neighborhood, in Austin, Texas, USA. There you go.
And if there is a lost soul here and there who really does tend to forget who or where he is, I would think that singing a song about bombs bursting in air would just confuse him more.
Of course it’s no more than a mild inconvenience to me, having to stand up again at the hockey game or having to freeze in mid step on my way to the poolside bathrooms for the national anthem. Probably I never notice beforehand where the humongous flag is because there are so many of them–everywhere, all the time. I’ve become flag-blind.
So I should be able to just shrug my shoulders about it. But I can’t. I’m a grown woman. I know where I am, I know who I am, and I don’t appreciate this trigger that’s supposed to make me jump up and think nationalistic pride thoughts on command. And it bothers me that apparently nobody else feels that way.
No matter how long I live here, it will always feel a little spooky, and I’m relieved when the whistle blows and the first hockey players slam into each other, or the first kids smack the water.