American Independence Day arrives one day early in Korea. Although today is July 4th in Korea, it won’t be the 4th in the U.S. for a few more hours until daylight hits the East Coast of the United States. You do your best to observe the holiday as you would at home, but in a faraway place like Korea such momentous occasions can feel somewhat obscure. For years my wife was far away from her home in China while she lived in the U.S., and for her important Chinese holidays seemed distant. Chinese New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival never felt the same for her in the U.S. as it did when she lived in China. I now know how she feels. Easter, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, now Independence Day. I celebrated all of these holidays in absentia this year. They still offer a welcomed break from work, and with so many Americans in Korea it is not too hard to find holiday activities. Still, it is never the same as it feels when one is home in one’s own culture. It’s yet another reality expatriates face no matter where they are, no matter where they are from.
I remember times in the U.S. when the neighborhood kids (supervised) ignited firecrackers and small fireworks in the street in the early evening. At night we would head to a local park where we could watch the city fireworks. I remember one year about six years ago when my wife and I went with some coworkers to her office in downtown Seattle. From our vista we could see two firework displays going off simultaneously, one in Elliott Bay next to downtown and the other to the east across Lake Washington. Perhaps the best one of all was the one I saw last year while living and working in Washington, D.C. I lived in an apartment complex in Arlington, Virginia and was fortunate to have a balcony overlooking the Capitol Building and the National Mall. From our balcony I watched the firework displays light up the sky above the nation’s capitol. The scene was unforgettable. Today will be my first visit to the U.S. Ambassador’s residence to celebrate the July 4th. Try as they might, the event will never replace the excitement of celebrating Independence Day at home with a picnic and fireworks.
Our nation is a young nation of 229 years. It’s easy to assume that America began on July 4, 1776 when the Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved and issued the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. That’s the day the United States of America observes as its national holiday. In reality, America is a much older nation. America began in 1519 with the founding of St. Augustine, Florida. It began in 1620 with the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. It began in 1625 when the Dutch settled on Manhattan Island and founded New Amsterdam (now New York City). It began in 1718 with the founding of New Orleans, capital of Louisiana Territory. It began in 1803 when Lewis and Clark pushed westward to the Oregon Coast. Some say it began much earlier with the founding of Native American settlements throughout the United States. All of these dates represent the founding of America, because each in their own way contribute to the collective history of the United States.
If I had to choose a definitive date in American history that defined us as a nation, I would choose June 21, 1788. On that date, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, resulting in the official adoption of the Constitution as the primary governing document of the United States. Before that, the Articles of Confederation remained in effect as the legal basis of our nation. More than any other document, the Constitution brought Americans together to form a single nation, and for 217 years we have recognized it as integral to our national psyche. Under the guidance of the Constitution, we have become a nation of 50 states and territories spanning an incontiguous area covering several continents. We are diverse and multi-cultural. We come from many different backgrounds and demographics, but for the most part we identify ourselves as a singular identity–we are Americans. We may be Asian, Latino, African American, Native American, Pacific Islander, or Caucasian, but we are still American. The fact that so many disparate people can generally live peacefully together is a testament to our great nation. It isn’t perfect, and tensions and inequities exist, but on the whole Americans live peacefully together and have put their trust in the Constitution to sustain and protect them. Multi-ethnic empires have come and gone, cobbled together by war and conquest, but America is different. Some might claim that America tends towards empire, but aside from acquisition through conflict such as Puerto Rico and Hawaii, the reality is that America was cobbled together through colonialism, purchases, treaties, statehood, and expansion. It’s a unique combination that adds to our nation’s character. It’s my hope that today’s celebration will be one of many to come.