In 4th grade, I was a proud member of the River Woods Elementary School choir. My musical career didn’t progress much past that point, but I had a taste of stardom when I got to sing a solo (“I hope I get my raisins from Fresno!”) in a song from “The Music Man”. One of my most vivid memories of my days as a not-so-talented singer is of a concert where we performed Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American”. Now that I think about it, the show must have been quite a sight to see—40 little girls in denim jumpers and red t-shirts, belting out a rather mature patriotic ballad about “starting again with just my children and my wife”. But the school was in a wealthy suburb, so I’m sure all the Republican parents were delighted. Although I’ve managed to forget the words to countless other songs, Lee Greenwood’s lyrics remain cemented in my memory. I even remember the harmonies “from the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee”.
During our first week at Loreto Sealdah, Cynthia, Liz, Colleen, and I observed a “value education” class. It started out with a lot of promise and dissolved into an overly-complex visualization exercise. By the end of the period, the teacher had students singing various songs in English, Hindi, and Bengali about values. We had assumed that we would simply be observing the class, fly on the wall style, but the teacher dragged us in to the class, made us leaders for small group discussion, and encouraged us to perform skits with the students. At the end of the class, after the students had sung their songs, the teacher looked at Cynthia and said, “Do you have a song from your country that you would like to sing?”
We didn’t want to sing—didn’t know what to sing, but we couldn’t back down. After a moment of mental scrambling, Cynthia starts in on “God Bless America”. We gamely joined in, struggled a bit with the high notes on “home sweet hoooome”, and received a smattering of applause from the students upon finishing. As we walked home, we decided that we probably could have (and should have) just sung the Notre Dame Fight Song. After some discussion, we realized that we were all feeling much more appreciative and proud of our country than usual. Being in a place that was so, so different from home made us realize just how fortunate we are to live where we do.
As an American Studies major, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the ways that people all over the world think about “America”. When I first arrived in India and people asked where I was from (“Come from?”), I’d say “USA” or “United States”, and people would stare back blankly. I was so confused–“How do these people not know what the US is? It’s the most powerful country in the world!” After a few of these perplexing exchanges, I learned that the correct way to tell someone that I am from the United States is to say, “I’m from America.” Once I changed my answer, the response changed too. Instead of quizzical looks, my answer elicited grins and “Ooooh Ah-mer-ee-ca!”s.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that people didn’t associate “USA” and “America”, because most people I encountered couldn’t really tell the difference between any Westerners. I would have thought that my American accent would have been a dead giveaway, totally distinguishing me from the plethora of Irish and English visitors, but none of the Indians noticed how our inflections and ways of speaking were dissimilar. On one occasion, a waiter asked Cynthia, Liz, and I whether we were Spanish or French. After having been in India for a few weeks, I began to realize why nobody could tell we were Americans. There aren’t very many Americans in Kolkata! Because of Mother Teresa, Kolkata is a big tourist/volunteer spot for Catholics, many of whom are French or Spanish. The only other Americans we encountered were part of a group of teachers touring India with Fulbright.
Now, one of the first things they teach in the Intro to American Studies course is that “America” is not just the United States. You’ve got North America, South America, Central America—lots of Americas with lots of countries other than the US. American Studies majors are instructed to be hyper-aware of this, despite the fact that the majority of the courses the program offers focus solely on the United States. Because of my American Studies training, I felt uncomfortable calling my home country “America” when I was in India, but it was the best way to tell people where I live. Once, upon hearing that I was from America, a little girl said, “Oooohhh do you know Bearhack Orbamah? He looks Indian.”