by Anna Blanch Rabe, Guest Contributor
The rolling plains of North Dakota glisten in the morning light. The fields of golden wheat intersperse with silos, fields of green and bodies of water – a combination of wetland, natural billabongs and dams.
The train rolls through small towns, ones with high school mascots painted on the sides of columns, tree-lined roads, industrial buildings and abandoned equipment.
The eastern shores of Rhode Island melt into the ruggedness of upstate New York. The heat of an August morning in New Orleans hits you in the face with a wave of humidity as strong as the smells of Cajun cooking.
The more west you go the more the jeans and button-up shirts of the Midwest give way to loose jersey fabric and harem pants, or hiking appropriate clothes of Oregon.
At the end of August, I completed a journey around the United States: 11 cities, 29 states, over 150 hours on trains, 2 planes, 1 Greyhound bus and 11 hours in a car in 28 days.
I set about to see more of the U.S., to work on my book manuscript, and to ask the question,
“what does it mean to be American?”
and underlying all of that is a much deeper question: what could it mean for me to become an American? During the journey, I became eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship so this question was more than just rhetorical.
An Adventure Around America: When An Immigrant Military Spouse Asks “What Does It Mean To Be American?”
I traveled from the southern reaches of western Texas, from our current home on an Air Force base in New Mexico, to New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and up the coast of Rhode Island to Boston, then to Chicago and across to Portland, Oregon.
From there I flew to Louisville, Kentucky, to participate in the V-WISE phase II training conference.
Following the conference I continued on my journey, taking a Greyhound bus to Chicago, and then the California Zephyr Amtrak train to Grand Junction in Colorado. From there I met up with my husband and some friends for an ultramarathon race (I am strictly support crew) in the Rocky Mountains at Leadville, Colorado.
Finally, we drove to Albuquerque to send my husband off on a TDY before I drove the 4 hours home.
This journey was originally my deployment plan B – a goal I had in my back pocket if another deployment came along.
I would encourage every military spouse to have these kinds of goals and plans percolating. For me it’s a way to look at those forced separations as opportunities to double down on life goals, and personal and professional development.
But, of course, just when you’re ready for another lengthy deployment and you think you’re one or two moves ahead on the chessboard of military family life, an assignment comes along without a deployment in sight!
So, I decided, with the full support of my spouse who knows who he married, to get planning and just do this.
I found out about a rarely employed Amtrak Rail Pass that meant I could pay for the bulk of my travel months in advance. I made use of hotel points and military discounts, and the kindness of friends to alleviate some of the accommodation expenses. I drew upon my experiences traveling solo around Europe and Asia as a poor student to visit great places to eat during happy hour and carrying snacks with me from periodic trips to local grocery stores.
I have now seen more of the United States than I had before. But, the reality is that I have barely scratched the surface of American culture and geography.
During my journey, I continued my role in the company I own, and I spoke with Rotary Clubs about my journey, met with military spouse business owners, and spent time with friends from other parts of our military life, and friends from graduate school asking them about what it means to be American.
I knew from the outset that the biggest wildcard would be the strangers I would encounter.
One of my fellow travelers, a school bus driver living in upstate New York who gave away her origins (a little like I often do) with her strong Glaswegian accent, told me that she was facing a similar decision – whether to apply for U.S. citizenship. She had decided to do it, because she felt that having an American born child (and American born partner) meant that she had a great deal to lose if for some reason the political situation changed and meant that she had to leave the U.S. because she was “only a permanent resident.”
She also told me something that had helped her come to grips with the idea that becoming an American citizen would not take away from who she was as someone who had grown up in Scotland:
“You can’t think of it as taking away or giving up, it has to be about embracing something additional that shapes who you are.”
I needed these words.
It can be complicated to be an immigrant in the United States, and even more so as the spouse of an active duty service member.
I don’t just mean the extra paperwork and complications for OPSEC. I mean coming from a different perspective can be a challenge with a community that almost by necessity relies on “American Exceptionalism” as a morale tool.
It makes sense that America has to be considered to be the best place in the world, and that its ways, customs and culture are to be considered the epitome of world culture, when your life is on the line and you are fighting to preserve that way of life.
I don’t begrudge this – it’s just a challenge when you have experienced many other ways of doing things, other forms of government, and other expressions of culture and community.
I also spent long stretches alone during these 4 weeks, observing and writing. I sought to be present in the experience: both the good of marveling at the landscapes as I traveled across Montana, Washington, Louisiana, Colorado, Georgia, Alabama, and along the northeastern coastline, and the challenges of travelling solo as a woman.
There are many unwritten rules about travelling in the US. I reflected on the confusion I felt when navigating the bus station, given that I can speak English and am a seasoned traveler.
So what did I get out of this journey around the United States?
I finished with quite a few thousand words written toward my book, a little more wisened about the understanding of what is distinct about being American, concerned by the tumultuous events taking place across the United States (before, during, and after my journey).
I am also even more convinced of the importance of hearing the stories of others, and becoming more familiar with the many different expressions of being American, and American culture and community.
How would you answer Anna’s question, “what does it mean to be American?” Share your responses in the comments section.
Anna Blanch Rabe is an Australian-born writer and advocate, who is also married to an Air Force officer. Her writing has been published by Huffington Post, MOAA, Military One Click, MSJDN Blog, Transpositions, and Military Kids Life, among others. She works as the CEO of Anna Blanch Rabe & Associates LLC, serving law firms, social enterprises, and nonprofit organizations with strategic, digital, and narrative content. You can read more of her writing on her website, and connect with her on Facebook, and Instagram.