I’m going to say that his name was Max. Except that “Max” isn’t annoying enough, so from here on out, he will be called Maaaaaax.
Maaaaaax sat down next to me in my office with a dopey grin on his face. “I’m very lucky to meet you. What are you doing on Friday?”
“Uhhh…” I said.
“Students at another school will have a closing ceremony for their unit on America,” Maaaaaax continued. “Will you come?”
Usually my knee-jerk reaction to invitations like these is to say “Sorry, I don’t have time!” because these things can end up as some carnival-like torment of Chinese people gaping at me and waiting for the foreign monkey to dance. Sometimes I get lucky, like when a friend asked me to come see her son perform in a school play. That was different, because a) I trust her, and b) all I needed to do was enjoy a performance, which was full of kids in period costumes making jokes, carrying props and being generally adorable.
This, though. Hmmm.
“I have Chinese class,” I said.
“First period?” Maaaaaax asked.
“Perfect! It starts at 8:20 and will last for an hour.”
“I’m busy…” I said weakly. It was too late, and he knew it. Maaaaaax…
“I’ll show you around the school. Thank you so much!”
Goddamnit. It was going to be a spectacle. They were going to set me up on a pedestal and have everyone gape at me. I would be Quasimodo in the village square. And I would be a dancing white monkey for all to see.
The next morning, I trudged over to the school, fully prepared to hate everything. At the entrance, a group of six kids lined up and shouted “WELCOME COME THIS WAY THANK YOU!” as I entered, and despite myself, I had to laugh. Inside were streamers, an American map set up for a game on the ground, areas decorated for the holidays, presidential pictures along the school walls. And then the hordes of kids dressed up as princesses, Superman, Batman, Zorro, cheerleaders, Bart Simpson, cowboys, college graduates and more. They were representing all 50 states and craned their necks to see me as I walked in. A kid dressed up as Captain America asked me where I was from, and I pointed on the map in his little passport to the tiny dot labeled “Minneapolis” in a vast terrain he likely didn’t know was any different from Times Square. I asked him which state he was supposed to be representing. He looked at his flag and said “I don’t know.”
Then I was led to a seat that looked like part of a judging panel, next to another American who seemed to be enjoying himself with grotesque amusement and two Spanish exchange students. The music “Country Road” started up, and all of the students entered. Down the middle came the costumed masses with their flags and choreographed entrances. A marching band played Sousa. Each “state” bounded across the red carpet, posed, and then stood in line. I kept waiting for the nasty surprise. Were they going to make me dance? Make a speech? Take pictures with every single student until my eyeballs bled? Time passed, and still nothing. Instead, I got to see a teacher sing “Bad Romance” with her tiny students in cheerleader outfits.
“Thank you thank you!” the announcers said. “And now, we will sing a song! ‘America, the Beautiful!’” The crowd cheered. I braced myself for something I morbidly hoped would be horrible.
Now, I’ve heard this song countless times, usually sung on autopilot as the choir director mouths the words to the verses. But never have I heard it like this, with hundreds of children singing full voice, heads high. It was like a bell ringing over the mountains, echoing all the way over to the silly American in China, sitting in her chair watching these students and thinking she lived so far away from it all. I got goosebumps from the waves of sound, from the crystalline strength of people singing together. And then, the American flag came out, fluttering above their heads like a giant parachute.
I’ve been far-removed from my homeland, and from this vantage point, I’ve seen the perks and the pockmarks, a more honest take on what it means to be American. But when it came down to it, I found myself swept up in the emotion of a simple song, suddenly reaching for the land I once called home. America really is beautiful. Not perfect. But at least the parts that I knew with the people I love are beautiful.
The ceremony ended after some speeches, and I was able to walk around and drink it all in before scampering away to my Chinese class. And for the rest of the day, bleeding into an evening play with college seniors weeping goodbye at the curtain call, I was seeing faces from across the ocean. The friends who, not one year ago, I’d clung to and said “goodbye” for what I hoped wouldn’t be the last time. The family that scrunched together for skype conversations when the time magically aligned. The mad rush of making music together with friends, and the release when it all came to an end.
I saw them all. And they were beautiful, too.