My husband takes the kids home, while I stop by city hall to register. I've lived in this country for eighteen years, but I've been on the special list for foreign residents.
The sky is gently overcast and the air is so cold it makes my teeth ache if I open my mouth too wide. I walk the back way home, through the trees, along the backs of houses where people keep chickens and ducks in little snowbound coups. It is dusk by the time I reach the hill above our house and all the lights of the town glow golden against electric blue snow.
It's idyllic: small, gabled Central European houses set along crooked streets with muted lamps. The snow is just deep enough to blanket everything cleanly and the birches creak in the cold. A fast train to Prague whistles by on the tracks at my back, flashing warm light from its windows..
It all reminds me of the reasons why I came here in the first place--the simple beauty, the values of frugality and modest comfort, the public transportation, the ancient hills that echo Celto-slavic folk tales and medieval history. I have almost come to take these blessings for granted.
And sure, this place has it's warts--rigid social rules, an impersonal and often harsh norm for interactions and the very mono-culture that allows for such a uniformly pretty view. But it isn't just familiar to me now. It has become inseparable from who i am.
As of this week, I am no longer a foreigner in the place where I have lived for eighteen years. I've become fluent in the language and culture of the Czech Republic. I have built a family and a house here. I've held various jobs and participated in public life as a moderately well-known anti-war activist for a few years.
It takes awhile to really become part of another country, It isn't as simple as planting a flag and declaring it yours. But whether or not officialdom recognizes it there comes a time, after many years when a foreigner is no longer a foreigner.
It's an odd feeling not to be a foreigner anymore. Since I left my home at age sixteen, my identity was that of a foreigner and an American abroad. Like a traditional marriage, I was caught up in it for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.
In the course of my travels, I was detained by both Ukrainian and Belarussian soldiers because of how my passport played in international politics, I survived a targeted attack by an anti-American mob, I saw others beaten because they were mistakenly believed to be Americans, I was harangued and insulted over misguided US military policies, and I withstood endless assumptions and false preconceptions. I was also given refuge by American soldiers in a war zone and was occasionally let through a barrier when my equals and peers were not, because I was an American and they were not.
So, I already know that passports and national acceptance come with strings attached. A year ago, I was asked to swear loyalty to the United States on behalf of my adopted children as they received their US citizenship. That started me thinking about what national identity means these days.
The United States is not a classical nation state. We have no one culture. Not even one language much anymore. If you know only that a stranger is an American, you actually know almost nothing about them. They could be anything from an Islamic fundamentalist living in Chicago to a second-generation Hippie living in Prague and everything and anything beyond those options.
By contrast, the country that has adopted me is fairly homogeneous. Almost everyone speaks Czech, including naturalized citizens who have to take a pretty tough test. Everyone is steeped in a similar culture and the only way a foreigner can become a citizen is by putting down firm roots in the country for many years. Thus a Czech passport implies a lot about one's identity.
But what about that loyalty bit? In the United States, we are often chastised as anti-American or disloyal if we criticize our president or military engagements. In the Czech Republic, no one tends to yell "anti-Czech" at people who disagree on politics and we are never the ones to start wars, so that isn't really an issue. But still a newly minted citizen must swear "loyalty" to the country in addition to swearing to abide by its laws and constitution.
I have never felt disloyal to the United States, although I have protested the policies of several administrations and every military adventure since 1990.
The thing is that to me loyalty isn't exclusive. Loyalty means that I will stand up for my home country. I will speak up when it is in danger, even if that danger comes from a corrupt or inept leader. I will work to make it stronger. And I won't aid those who would harm my country. I have no problem pledging this loyalty to my home country. And I have no problem pledging it to my adopted country either.
When I graduated from college in linguistics I was asked to apply for a job at the CIA or the DIA (the Defense Intelligence Agency). I didn't really consider it, not only because I had my heart set on journalism, but more importantly because my research and acquaintances in the intelligence field told me that within these organizations loyalty means a willingness to harm or deceive others in order to advance one's own country. It means unquestioning allignment, even when temporary policies may be unethical. It also entails a belief that the lives of fellow citizens are of greater value than the lives of foreigners.
I am loyal in that I want the best for my country. I will take the time to go be politically active and strive for the betterment of my country. I hope Peru does well too, but I'm not loyal to Peru, just because I don't live there and I am not personally invested in that country. I wish them no ill though.
So, this is the thing. When I pledge loyalty to my adopted country, I mean this. I will stand with you. I tie my fate to the fortunes of this nation. I will sacrifice my time and energy for this country. I will not remain silent when this country is in danger from within or from the outside. I will be active, not passive and my heart is with this country.
People ask what a person who has two countries does if those countries ever go to war. I certainly hope they never will and see no indication that they might. But if it were to happen, I very much doubt that war would be in the interests of either. If one were the aggressor that regime would be as harmful to the aggressing country as it would to the victim. If neither was the aggressor then it would be a harmful folly for both. By being against such a war and doing all one could to prevent it, one would still be true to the spirit of loyalty. To throw one's country into a war, that would seem the height of disloyalty to me, even if you wrap yourself in a flag while you do it.
My last issue with this quietly momentous change is that of collective responsibility, even guilt by association and the assumptions of others..
Once before 9/11, I landed in Pakistan on a flight to Bangladesh. I sat next to a young Pakistani man whose body hummed with tension. I got him talking but I was savvy enough to say "I'm coming from Prague" and let him assume I was Czech, rather than wave around my American passport. It wasn't ten minutes before the young Pakistani was telling me all the reasons he hated Americans--all of them having to do with what various American politicians had done or ordered our military to do. None of his reasons were actually reasons to hate Americans. There was nothing about loose American values, bad movies or un-Islamic dress codes.
It was far from the only time I encountered the idea of collective responsibility or guilt for the actions of political and military leaders. For a good part of the twenty years I've spent abroad in all, I have seen my fellow Americans wearing Canadian stickers on their backpacks to avoid trouble.
So, now that I have adopted a new country and still claim loyalty to the first, it is likely that I will at times be held to blame for the missteps of both nations. And believe me, the Czech Republic may be small but we still have ways of making ourselves unpopular internationally. For starters, the Czech Republic is known as one of the most racist countries in Europe. It is also known for having a lot of hackers and some dangerous I.P. addresses. As a Czech,
I have never lied about being an American, except in two cases when I really thought my life might be in danger. Part of loyalty to me is that if we let our leaders go so far astray that it causes this kind of flak, then generally we ought to take it, try to explain and then try to redress things our leaders did that really were against our values. So, I'll take the collective responsibility of my adopted country as well. This is why it is an identity I don't take lightly.
I won't lie about my Czech identity. Instead I'll try to make it an identity to be proud of, just as I do with my American identity.