We all have memories that stick with us. Some are happy, some are sad, and some are our proudest moments. This past week's focus on kneeling NFL players and the national anthem has brought back some of these memories for me.
In watching the games and the news coverage, I was reminded of my first anthem. I learned my first anthem during my first days of school in a land far away and much different from ours. I remember starting every day in the schoolyard standing with all of the students as we sang our national anthem before going through our morning exercises. I was proud to sing the anthem. We all were.
A year later, the singing took on a much different tone. By this time, the government had been overthrown. A new communist regime was in power. Choices were disappearing by the day. National pride was no longer a matter of choice. It was an obligation. Obligations being enforced by teachers and bosses. I remember my mother, a school teacher, being required to attend national demonstrations with other teachers-an obligatory gesture of support so the government could claim to be for the common people.
Our proud multi-colored flag was replaced with a simple red flag. Soldiers marched in our streets. And yet every morning in school started the same way. We would stand in the yard, sing our new national anthem, and go through our morning exercises. But singing the national anthem was no longer a matter of pride. It was simply another one of our national obligations.
Within a few years, I went from this obligatory singing of a forced national anthem to once again proudly saying the pledge of allegiance with my hand on my heart. My first days in school in America were a learning experience in many ways; more was new and unknown to me than near the same as my prior experiences. But our morning recitation of the pledge of allegiance was a thread of commonality that connected my new experiences with days of old.
I learned the pledge quickly, practicing it by myself at home so I wouldn't stand out from the other children. I was proud to say the pledge. I knew just how lucky I was to be pledging allegiance to America rather than singing whatever national anthem was being forced upon my classmates who stayed behind.
As a child, I didn't think about whether I should be saying the pledge of allegiance despite not being an American yet. I was a child like every other child in that classroom. They stood. I stood. They put their hands on their hearts. I put my hand on my heart. They pledged allegiance. So did I.
As I grew up, this daily pledge of allegiance was replaced with the every so often singing of the national anthem at sporting and other such events. It would always start with an announcement along the lines of: "ladies and gentlemen, please stand and remove your hats for the singing of our national anthem." I would stand. I rarely had a hat to remove. And I would sing, albeit quietly for the benefit of those around me. But a question lingered.
Before I became a citizen, I wondered what those around me might think if they knew I was not an American. Of course, I had friends and others who never treated me any differently from other Americans. But I also had my share of encounters with people who felt compelled to remind me that I was not an American-without even checking my papers.
In those moments when I would stand in a crowd of Americans with the national anthem playing, I couldn't help but feel a sense of imposter syndrome (before I knew what imposter syndrome was). In those moments I looked forward to the day when I could stand among them proudly as an American without question.
Before that day came, I had a day of celebration. Another memory that will always stay with me. My friends gathered at the courthouse to watch my naturalization ceremony. And at the end, I stood as I had as a child with my hand on my heart and pledged allegiance for the first time as an American. I was proud to say every word. The flag itself looked brighter to me that day. It was my flag now.
When I attended my next sporting event, I looked forward to the national anthem as much as the game. When it played, I stood. I sang proudly, but still quietly, without any sense of being an imposter. This was now my national anthem.
My imposter feelings were replaced with a certain sense of pride that I was among the many. I was an American citizen bestowed with now inalienable rights. I was no longer a long-term visitor. I belonged.
As the national anthem protests became front-page news this past week, I remembered this journey from the schoolyard to the seats in the arena. I once again felt a certain sense of pride. I've stood for every anthem played in my presence in my life, before and after becoming an American. Having started life without the freedoms that America guarantees and represents, I savor those freedoms and guard them jealously. And I take pride in their symbols.
But my pride this time does not arise from my standing with other Americans as the anthem plays. It comes from my appreciation for the Constitution-as an American and an immigrant. The anthem, the flag, and the pledge all derive their special place in our lives and in our hearts because of the Constitution that they represent. It is the Constitution that created the America that we know and love. It is the Constitution that has provided the foundation for America through the centuries. And it is the Constitution that makes us all Americans and gives us choice.
My appreciation for the Constitution is amplified with my memories of having lived without it. Memories of being forced to sing an anthem rather than singing it with personal and national pride. Memories of watching my mother being forced to cheer for a government she did not believe in and that did not believe in her. Memories of obeying our government out of fear rather than respecting it out of pride.
My pride this time comes from appreciating that our choice to stand is itself a symbol of the freedoms for which the anthem stands. A choice not many in the world enjoy.
A choice, not an obligation, that makes all the difference in the world.