How China Made Me Appreciate My Freedom

Why singing the national anthem is important to me



What my kids couldn't understand about singing the national anthem


When my daughters were younger, they would groan the all-too-familiar phrase: “Mom! You’re embarrassing me!” 


They’d roll their eyes and hang their heads: “Stop it. No one else is singing!” 


They told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t sing at the ball games when they played the national anthem. “No one else sings, Mom. Everyone can hear you!” they’d sputter in mortification. 


I responded with the primal response they usually threw at me. “You just DON’T UNDERSTAND!” 


There was no way that two pre-teen girls could grasp my strange stubbornness on the subject of vocal patriotism. I hadn’t understood it myself until I traveled to China on a Fulbright-Hayes Study Abroad trip with other teachers. 


Lessons from China and Tiananmen Square

The heat was sultry on a hot July night in Guangzhou, China. My colleagues and I met in a small, private banquet room five years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. That day, we had heard firsthand accounts of the horrific aftermath of the Massacre at Tiananmen Square from students who had been there. I felt the weight of oppression in their words. For the first time in my life, I comprehended the gift of freedom that I had taken for granted before. 


If you don’t know about Tiananmen Square, it was a pro-democracy protest by students from forty universities. They were asking for freedom of the press, economic reform, and better education. Thousands of students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on April 27, 1989, and by the middle of May, more than a million people had joined them hoping for political reform. 


The government declared martial law on May 20th, and on June 3rd ordered the military to take control of Tiananmen Square at all costs. Hundreds of protesters were killed, and thousands were arrested as “dissidents” and later executed. We were lucky enough to hear some of the survivor stories, none of them happy. All of them harrowing.


Our group was made of fourteen college teachers throughout Illinois. Each one of us had been impacted by the stories. We went to dinner that night raw with emotion, understanding my colleague’s intent as his soft tenor voice erupted into song: 

“Oh, I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”

Looking back, I should have been worried about the fearless voicing of his beliefs in a foreign country. Instead, I applauded his courage. 


I don’t know whether any Chinese patrons outside of our room heard that quiet declaration, but 14 teachers from Illinois comprehended every syllable, every nuance, every word on that Fourth of July evening. I was carried away on the current of emotion that flowed right to my heart and awakened a patriotism I had never before understood.


Homesick after a month of study and travel, we banded together, softly singing patriotic songs, eating with chopsticks, and contemplating what we had witnessed. I couldn’t stop thinking about how good I had it. I vowed never to take my liberties for granted again. 




I had, after all, stood, walked, and seen Tiananmen Square where people had died for the right to speak their minds. Powerful red brick walls surrounded me. Arched doorways and ornate balconies had been dwarfed by the huge picture of Mao that hangs above all. 


To my over-active imagination, the voices of demonstrators emanated from the very bricks, murmuring of tremendous risk, whispering hazy dreams of democracy. 


Singing the national anthem is a patriotic love song to my country

The benefits of democracy had been preached to me many times before. The historical battles and the governmental philosophies leading to democracy were part of a well-worn canon of my life. But I had to travel halfway around the world before I truly understood them. How easily we Americans take the right of free speech for granted. How often do we cheapen democracy by not realizing its worth? 


Patriotism is a favorite topic as the 4th of July rolls around, but it’s more than flag-waving, more than history, more than parades and apple pie. It’s a feeling, an awareness, a state of being. It’s being proud and unashamed of living in America, a country with problems, but a place where my voice counts and my life isn’t threatened by speaking out. 


So if you’re ever standing near me, you’ll have to understand that when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played, this will be one voice who doesn’t mind rising in tribute, one voice who refuses to be embarrassed. Mine will be one small voice lifted in song, a lyric soprano believing in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” enough to warble the words out loud. 


My girls are grown women now. We don’t live near each other, so I don’t know if they would still tell me to “Stop it, Mom!” But no matter. Whoever is around will have to bear with me as I staunchly sing a love song to my country, expressing a patriotism that will never embarrass me. 

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