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An American Column

Surprisingly, the scariest moment of my life wasn’t when I watched Hereditary for the first time two summers ago at a midnight showing (“Not even when her head fell off, Bianca?” No, not even then). It didn’t occur when I moved to the United States in May 2018 and, for the first time, was left in a foreign place without any family members.

Before last week, the closest I had ever been to feeling actual fear was a night when I was 5 years old, after kicking my sister in the face and giving her a nosebleed that refused to stop running throughout the entirety of the night. My late mother, patient and loving as she was, took one look at the situation before her, glared at me with pure fury and genuine disappointment in her eyes (which rarely conveyed any emotion other than joy, might I add), and yelled at me. Every other encounter I have ever had with any sort of relatively terrifying situation pales in comparison to what I felt that stuffy October night in Jakarta. 

That was, until last week, when I found out that my a cappella group, The Sharps, was set to sing the U.S. national anthem at the annual Red Bandana Run, which honors Welles Crowther, BC ’99, who lost his life while saving others during 9/11. When my music director walked into the room with a smile on her face and asked if we were ready to start learning the four-part harmonies to this song, I felt my knees go weak and genuinely thought that I was going to regurgitate whatever I had for dinner that night. 

All week, all I did was attempt to learn the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as though it was the only thing that mattered to me in life. For some reason unbeknownst to me, however, I couldn’t get these lyrics right. Every single time we arrived at the point where we were supposed to sing about the ramparts we watched, I messed up. Whenever we reached the very end of the anthem, I failed to sing the note that was clearly written on my music sheet. The problem was, the more I failed—and trust me, this happened plenty—the more nervous I felt. Time was against me, the clock was ticking, and all I could think about was how I would not only fall short of honoring Welles Crowther, but America as a whole. 

I was so anxious for what was to come that the night before the race, I dreamt that every single Founding Father visited me, threatening to ruin me if I were to accidentally sing the incorrect lyrics. George Washington himself sat down at my desk, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You have one chance and one chance only, so you better get this right.”

Saturday morning found me standing on the steps of Lyons with the rest of The Sharps. An overwhelming number of individuals attended the run—almost 1000—and as expected, every single person went quiet when we began singing the anthem. I thought I was going to puke, but alas, I did not. What I did do, however, was stumble over the final sentences of the song. I believed right then and there that John Adams was going to smite me—this obviously didn’t happen. My greatest fears were simultaneously realized and averted: I did mess up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but I somehow survived the experience.

Looking back, all I can tell you is that what I felt was an irrational fear for something that most, if not all, would consider ridiculous. The members of my a cappella group gave me a number of comforting remarks, telling me that it wouldn’t matter if I sang the lyrics wrong. My roommates were kind enough to repeatedly remind me that even some Americans struggle to remember the words to their own national anthem. Despite their assurances and support, I couldn’t reconcile the idea that I would be forgiven if I messed up “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I had witnessed so many of my best friends sing this anthem passionately at countless football games with looks of earnest jubilation on their faces. The prospect of not doing it justice was far more terrifying than the possibility of being hunted down by the ghosts of the Founding Fathers who appeared in my dreams.

The idea of insulting this nation in any way, be it through something as small as accidentally replacing the word “fight” with “night” or as minor as messing up a certain chord progression in its beloved national anthem was enough to keep me up every night for a whole week. 

The thought of disappointing America, a country that’s become a second home to me, scared me more than anything else I had ever experienced before. And the reason behind all this I have managed to identify is because of the love that I have for this nation, one that’s not even my own. The sleepless nights, the irrational fear of being hunted down by men from a time long past, and the waves of fear and anxiety that I felt whenever I even thought about having to sing the anthem in front of myriads of people were all rooted in what I can only identify as adoration.

I never expected to find myself in this position. In this land of strangers, I have managed to acquire a plethora of things that I never thought were possible. I obviously am incapable of listing all of them here, but I can provide you with a few: a good education; a sort of half-baked immunity to the cold; a love for sugar; a newfound respect for football (which, I should add, I never understood the beauty of before I came to BC); an irreplaceable group of friends who I, in all honesty, cannot imagine living without; a lifetime of unforgettable memories; and most importantly, hope. When I really think about it, I cannot help but ask, where else in the world could I have obtained all of this, if not in the United States?

In my head, I told myself that after everything that America has done for me, the least I could do was memorize its national anthem perfectly—and even this I could not manage to do. And yet, as it has done many times before, America did not turn me away, but instead accepted me as though I were one of its own.

America is not perfect, and, like every other country that exists in the world, it will never be. But what it has given me is a type of forever—a home of sorts—and for that, I remain infinitely grateful.

November 3, 2019

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