My Son’s Flag Is Not My Familiar Stars and Stripes


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Credit Illustration by Abigail Gray Swartz

What does it mean to “be” from somewhere? How much a part of your identity is the place you grow up — the town, the state, the country? How important is it that your children share that identity?

I was cleaning out a messy desk drawer in our den when my 3-year-old son found one of my husband’s old poker chips with Ronald Reagan’s face on it. “What’s he lying on, Mommy?” my son asked, holding out the chip to me. Distracted by a spilled container of paper clips, I glanced down only briefly.

“Hmm? He’s not lying on anything, sweetheart,” I said. “He’s standing with the flag behind him.” My son looked puzzled for a moment. “But where’s the maple leaf?”

Then I realized: His flag is not my flag.

In 2012, when I first moved to Toronto with my husband, a professor at the University of Toronto, and our son, I didn’t give much thought to the cultural differences between the United States and Canada. There were too many other things to do: permanent residency paperwork to be filled out; doctors to be found (ones that took temporary insurance before the provincial health care plan kicked in); baby classes to be attended; and neighborhoods to be explored for the best groceries, ice cream and pharmacies. I had to learn how to buy meat in kilograms, to bake with butter in grams, and to pour milk not from cartons but from blue bags (a truly messy endeavor for a beginner). I had to learn how to tell temperature in Celsius (26°C will never sound quite as warm as a balmy 78°F) and to say “a loony” instead of “a buck” when handing over a dollar coin.

Sooner than I thought possible, it was time to sign my son up for preschool. On a beautiful September morning, my son and I, hand in hand (or rather, I was squeezing his hand too hard, and he was trying desperately to run into the street) crossed the playground of our local public school. From inside, I heard music coming over the loudspeaker. It sounded almost like a Christmas carol. “O Canada! / Our home and native land!” I felt tears spring to my eyes as it sank in that my son would never stand with his class, dutifully and uncomprehendingly, repeating the “Pledge of Allegiance.” I also felt foolish: Why did that matter at all?

I had never felt particularly American; if anything, I’ve always thought of myself first as a New Jerseyan. Though I attended college in Virginia and law school in Indiana, and worked in Washington, D.C., New Jersey has always been home. When I return to my parents’ house in the town I grew up in, I feel myself relax, both psychologically and physically. It is probably a strange thing to say, but I find the brusque, shorthand way of communication among New Jerseyans — family, friends, store clerks, strangers — comforting. This is my language, I think, and these are my people. My accent returns with a force that makes my husband, a California native, laugh.

Perhaps I am just nostalgic for the place I grew up, but I want my son to identify with New Jersey, too. And, perhaps irrationally, I want him to feel American, whatever that means, good or bad. But I’ve come to understand it’s not so much the nationality I want him to identify with — it’s me. Identity is something that we hear much about these days: gender, sexuality, politics — and perhaps race — are fluid and individual. But nationality is fixed; it is something we can’t choose until we are old enough to have a choice, and by then, we have been marked by it forever, however subtly.

My lamentations for my son to experience an “American” childhood aren’t rooted in a real belief that his childhood will be so radically different from mine, but rather a sense that he will be separate from me in this way as well as in so many others. It’s a reality that many immigrant parents in many countries have faced as they raise children who identify not with their familial past but with their cultural present.

My new son, due any day, will be a Canadian by birth. In school, my children will learn history from a Canadian perspective. They will spell color with a “u.” They will celebrate not the Fourth of July but Victoria Day, with fireworks. They will eat Thanksgiving dinner in early October. They will most likely prefer hockey to baseball. None of these things matters to anyone other than to their mother, who will always silently turn up the radio a little louder when she hears “Born in the U.S.A.”



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