“You know, most Americans would think that…”
“I am not a typical American.” I say this to cut a person off. I always do. Only, I do it politely.
My biography is way to long rehash completely, but it’s true. I will never fit the stereotype of “American” that some Europeans or Asians would love to quickly characterize. Plus, I do not say this out of vanity or rampaging self esteem. It’s simply just factually true. I am not your average American, and I was reminded of this upon a recent visit to Dinosaur Park in Changzhou’s northern Xinbei district.
Yes, Dinosaur Park — with its multitude of roller coasters,its rides and its prehistorically themed shopping plaza right outside its entrance. Here, you can find goofy sculptures of extinct reptiles wearing top hots or crowns. The architecture of the buildings incorporates this dino so heavily it seems to drip from every wall, every store front. So, one could easily ask this: why did such a gaudy place give you such existential feelings about your nationality?
Well, it wasn’t Dinosaur Park — rather the strange, semi-abandoned empty parking lot next to it. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t even have an advertised name. It’s just there. It’s filled with short concrete pillars, and each has a country’s flag and a short geographical blurb in Chinese and English. As themes go, it’s a stark incongruity to the Dinosaur themed kitsch it’s next to.
I found myself there wandering among the pillars retracing every period in my life. I looked for and mostly found the flags of countries I had been to. That would start with Germany, where I was born on an American Air Force Base. Only, that was The Cold War, when East and West Germany were two separate countries. Since then, reunification happened after the Berlin wall got sledgehammered. The presence of the American military in Europe and Germany has been drastically reduced since then.
After that, I wandered until I found the United Kingdom. But that wasn’t enough. The strangest part of these pillars is in who was included and who wasn’t. I couldn’t find a flag for Pakistan to send to a friend via Wechat, but Bermuda was there, instead. I lived on that island chain for three years after my family left the UK. They USA once had a naval base there. I lived there for three years. Bermuda is a self-governing territory within the United Kingdom. It’s practically an independent country except for British Colonial legalese. Strangely enough, other territories were there when other major, globally impactful nations were absent. More on that later.
Only, I didn’t think about that as yet. I was too busy tracking down Belgium. All the while, I could think of nothing but excellent chocolate, salty potatoes, beer like Chimay, and the awkwardness of my eighth and ninth grade years in high school near NATO’s military headquarters. Once, I snapped the photo, I quickly moved on.
I dearly wanted to find The Netherlands. Those were special, if yet frustrating three years. Holland remains my most nostalgic, fondly remembered years while living in Europe. Here, the people were extremely friendly, and here, I turned 18 and left for college in America. The Netherlands was the last European country I lived in, and for a long time, I missed the place desperately.
Imagine the culture shock I might feel. I was an American who never really ever lived in America. And I ended up in West Virginia, a land of mountains, shuttered coal mines, and fundamentally strange people. None of them could truly understand or comprehend me. They grew up in small towns and never travelled; they had roots and extended families. I was a drifter, but that was how I was raised by my parents. Literally. Living in America left me fundamentally unimpressed. There was no spiritual awakening. There was no profound feeling of “coming home.” America felt to me as alien — as foreign — as Germany, the UK, Belgium, Bermuda, and the Netherlands did. Only, I was supposed to feel proud, and I felt nothing but shame instead. How else can you feel when you share a culture and a language with the people around you, and you still feel like an outsider? I quickly took a picture of the American flag and moved on. I didn’t want to dwell on my many personal ghosts.
China, as one might expect, was super easy to find in this strangely international parking lot. Multiple concrete posts feature this nearly solid red flag with yellow stars. I took multiple shots of this from different angles. Some had dinosaur park in the background, and some had your typical Chinese residential group of skyscrapers. That’s also where my story currently ends. I work in China now, and I live in Changzhou. Life, right now is rather nice. Sure, it’s not what I imagined for myself years ago, but life never turns out exactly as you planned.