On being American abroad, and having no traditions

Last year, when we first moved to Edinburgh, there were fireworks every night from the castle on the hill.  When I lived in San Diego, there were fireworks across the bay every night during the summer, so at first I just though that it must be part of Edinburgh’s sunlight celebrations.  Alice quickly realized that it was part of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the largest and most famous of its kind.  We looked into tickets at the time, but they were absurdly expensive, and we weren’t really committed to going, with Alice starting work and me trying to learn to code.

But this year, we got tickets through the Royal Scots Club – half-price, with a big dinner beforehand.  I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be an incredible cultural experience.  Countries around the world sent teams of performers to participate; each country had the stage to themselves for a show, all of which seemed to emphasize some aspect of their cultural tradition.

But as wonderful as it was to see so many countries celebrating their heritage and music, the whole thing made me a bit sad.  As an bi-racial American and a Southern Californian, I grew up with comparably little sense of tradition, or perhaps I just didn’t realize at the time what our traditions actually were.  Any singular culture we might have claimed existed was a blend of every other culture we encountered.  Come to think of it, with every new encounter our traditions changed; heck, Southern California was constantly reinventing its traditions and culture, and how can you claim a consistent culture when culture is adopted and discarded with each season’s fashions?  But perhaps it is one of America’s greatest strengths to allow people to opt out of tradition should they wish to.  At the same time, to not have anything to anchor us to the past, and nothing that we might hope to pass on to the future – it feels like there’s a void where we have no truly singular national identity-

But actually, I take that back.  Every other country that was represented at the tattoo had a stereotypical display – the African girls, singing and dancing during a honey harvest, and the Scots with their kilts and bagpipies, and the Mexicans with bright dresses and tassles and Mariachi, and the Czechs in solid colours, dancing in ordered pairs, and the drummers of Switzerland, precise as clockwork.  The Americans had the only display that brought tears to my eyes, though, and elicited gasps from the audience – first, a troop of pipers, dressed in Colonial regalia, marking the Revolutionary War, and then the Navy, twirling rifles with fixed bayonets, even more precise than the Swiss drummers because the potential damage from twirling blades is so much greater than the potential damage of dropped drumsticks.  The leader of the Colonial band was African-American, too, and many of the pipers were women, and the soldiers were of every hue and color, while the other countries were…well, relatively monochromatic.  And the only moment I got goosebumps was at the end: every performer from every country lined up for a final display on the parade grounds, and every other country’s performers were moving, swaying, dancing, playing, except the American soldiers.  They were in tight, orderly rows, stone still at the front, staring straight ahead, unaffected by the pandemonium surrounding them, nameless soldiers, faces hidden from view, here to do a job, nothing more, to follow orders and then go home after their work was done, just as their predecessors did in World War II and The Great War before that.  Everyone else on the parade ground was there to perform a sort of fantasy of their historical tradition, but the Americans were there as part of their past, current, and future – as performers, but not for entertainment.

That made me shiver in awe, because perhaps that is our culture – to do the world’s great work, and hold up its highest values.  Maybe the greatest American traditions are dressed in work clothes and transported around the world in our heads.

And it also made me nervous, because are we doing that now?  Are we the beacon on the hill, the light showing the way for others; are we fighting evil, or embracing it?  And if our leaders are grovelling before the darkness, am I doing enough to hold up my little light and spread good in the world?  Am I worthy to bear that flag; to be an American?  And most important: even if there’s no traditional dance, or music, or theatrical art, am I doing enough to uphold the traditions of duty, honour, loyalty, freedom, and all of the other glorious ideals that we like to preach about, even if we don’t always perform them?

Because even if the fashions change, America does have traditions; we have ideas and ideals that we espouse that don’t change.  Those are the traditions I saw in those soldiers; those are the traditions that we have to show the world.  Our political leaders will pass; new ones will come, and they will be better, because they will hew to our traditions.

At least that’s my hope – that no matter what the fashion of the time, we’ll participate in our traditions and be worthy of them.

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