Monday, May 2, 2011

Feeling like an outsider

This is a bit strange. I was planning to write about the word “kiwi” for my next post, but that will have to wait. World events have interrupted my plans again.

I was in the United States on September 11, 2001. Like everyone, I remember it like it was yesterday (with all caveats of what I know about the “truth” of memory). But I have been living abroad for two significant events of its aftermath . . . well, now three. I was living in France as a foreign exchange student when we first invaded Iraq, and I was living in France again, but as an English teaching assistant, when President Bush was reelected. I think it goes without saying that I had a lot of explaining to do as an American in France at those times. For the record, I was treated well and respectfully by the French, but that story is for another day. Those events were nothing compared to my reaction to yesterday.

I have been in New Zealand for just over 4 months (hard to believe really), yet my time here has not been uneventful. First, I was not only witness to, but a direct participant in, New Zealand’s major tragedy this year – the Christchurch earthquake. Although I was treated like royalty because of the group of people with whom I was in Christchurch, I did not feel like an outsider. If anything, it made me feel more like a kiwi (yes, I will explain why they use that word later, I promise).

But yesterday, that all changed. Yesterday, I wore the mark of American loud and clear, if only in my own head. Sitting alone at the Union Grill was a little surreal (after asking them to change the channel on the tv). Wolf Blitzer was blabbing nonsense to fill time, and my fellow kiwi students were walking around as though nothing were happening. I felt an obligation to inform them of the news but then realized that this topic did not hang over them like a dark shadow each and every day. So I sat there alone. Eventually, another American from the postgraduate suite joined me (we had never met before yesterday), and then two of my American friends. We had our little party. The rest of the world just kept on moving along as though nothing was happening.

And then the announcement. Osama Bin Laden is dead. His death was ordered by the President. Watching President Obama, I thought he seemed “off.” With no emotion or guidance of how to respond, President Obama ended our 10-year national obsession with one person who we had been trained to vilify. Then he walked away, leaving the rest of us to figure out what to do about it.

And that is when people cheered. They stormed the streets to chants of USA! USA!, to renditions of the Star Spangled Banner, and to songs of victory. My heart wrenched watching this. How could people celebrate? A man was dead. We killed to stop killing. It makes no sense. So what did I do? I went to yoga, of course. And yes, I felt calmer after the class, but my 40-minute walk home brought all those emotions back. What am I “supposed” to feel?

My flatmate is a 55-year-old woman getting her certificate in Peace and Conflict studies. I was dreading coming home to anyone. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think. I wanted to understand. Instead, I asked her, “did you hear the news?”

“Yes, what a tragedy,” was her response.

I sat shell-shocked. Wait, what? A tragedy? That was not the reaction in the States. It was not even my reaction. Was it supposed to be? Was this the “rational” response? I agonized more and more. She is right, but I found myself defending American policies with which I generally disagree – secret CIA operations that have as their stated purpose to capture, but everyone knows they will end in a bloodbath. I had to tell her that it is policy to try to capture, but he fought back. She said, “how do we know for sure he committed the attacks of 9/11?” I just sat there.

But then I began to understand. I thought about the dancing in the streets. I took a broader view of it – what is it really? For ten years, we have been building tension. I saw a sign today that said something like, “It has been 9 years, 232 days since September 11, 2001. Where is Osama bin Laden?” Over bin was a cardboard piece that read, “dead.” We have been holding onto this. He was a symbol. I make no judgments as to whether he should have been, certainly not on this post, but regardless of what you think, he symbolized that tension. He symbolized that fear. The dancing and joy and excitement were less about a man dying than they were about relief.

But what is this sense of relief? A release of tension. In yoga parlance, this jubilation was really just a really powerful exhale. It was a moment to let go of 10 years of tension. Rationally we know it will not make much difference. If anything, it could escalate anti-American sentiments. But we had the moment to let go, and we needed it. Our collective consciousness needed it. Was it “right?” I cannot judge that. I know that going forward this is a solemn event, one that should make us think very carefully about our definition of “terror” and what it means to the world, what it means to kill people without trial.

But the exhale was needed first. Perhaps with that release, our pent-up tensions can give way to our frontal lobes and our rational thoughts. Perhaps the collective release, the American release, can open our eyes to what really happened – a man was killed. Perhaps we can release into a state of understanding that we are all connected, Kiwis and Americans, and Pakistanis, and Afghans. Perhaps with that release the notion of “outsider” will cease to exist. 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

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