The Freedom Tower.

The Freedom Tower.

I am not a big flag waver. I am a little too left-leaning and anti-authority. That said, I always vote, pay lots of taxes (usually around October), mostly obey the laws of the land (I don’t even speed, but let’s not bring up pirated music or movies), and I help old ladies across the street (really). While I am quite happy to have been born an American and I very much believe that little lucky happenstance has afforded me more opportunity to act upon my dreams and passions than any other birthplace could have, I never really understood just how lucky I was until one day in the summer of 1993.

I did not realize what it means to be an American until I was 23. Most Americans, whether they question our government or exalt it, do not truly grasp the pull that America has for the rest of the world. I certainly did not.

When I was 23, I was deported from Japan for grossly overstaying my visa. I had voluntarily turned myself in and I was sent to a special police immigration center where I stated my case, signed a paper wherein I gave up all rights (scary), and was given a window of a couple weeks in which to leave the country, not to return for at least two years. I was the only person from what is commonly called the first world in the entire center. There were Koreans, Iranians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Thais, Peruvians, Filipinos, and other nationalities, but I saw no one from North America or Western Europe in the time I was there. I stood out like the classic proverbial sore thumb–-tall, American, with too much blond hair (this being the grunge era, no laughing).

In order to get my paperwork finalized, I had to get my passport photocopied at a small kiosk where I was waiting in line with about 100 other people. Two men were working the line selling discount airline tickets–a smart inspiration on their part as everyone in that line had to leave Japan within one week and there are only two ways off an island. I asked how much to LA and one of them asked if I was American. I held up and kind of waved my US passport in reply and suddenly all conversation around me, up and down the line, ceased. As the hush spread, at least 100 eyes stared, just fixated, on the small blue passport. And, at that moment, I knew that every person in that line would give up almost everything they had just to be the owner of that passport. A tingle went through me and I froze for a second, hand and passport upraised like I was hailing a taxi, and then I sort of shivered and lowered my hand, tucking my passport back out of sight.

It was an powerful lesson in the meaning of my, our, birthright and I distinctly remember that moment.

In memory of those who lost their lives 13 years ago and in memory of those who gave their lives trying to help others on that same day.