The Foreign Service Journal, September 2010

I smile at my 8-year-old son, Ben. “You’re gonna like this. I grew up eating these,” I say, placing before him, straight from the toaster, a warm Pop-Tart. Frosted chocolate fudge. He takes a bite. His eyes widen. “Isn’t America nice?” I say. He nods and takes an even bigger bite. My son was born in Singapore, my daughter, Lara, in England. We have lived in London for the past 12 years, but I still want my children to love America as much as I do. It isn’t always easy. America is not exactly high on the world’s list of fa- vorite countries. I frequently hear, “That’s very American, isn’t it?” It’s code for: “What a pile of rubbish you’ve sent over to our shores.” I know I’ve become entirely too sen- sitive. But it’s the insidiousness of it all. When my book club read The Kite Runner , one woman commented, “I feel he had to give it a Hollywood end- ing for the American audience. They don’t like subtlety.” Some days, I return home frothing. Why do I take it all so personally? I blame it on my background. As a for- mer Foreign Service dependent, I grew up an unpaid ambassador and feel compelled to continue the tradition, in- cluding bristling at our bad reviews. My husband, Andrew, knows my buttons and, boy, does he like to push them. An international relations pro- fessor, he can cite reams of statistics to showmy beacon-on-the-hill image isn’t always correct. My children shift their eyes back and forth as he and I toss lobs over the dinner table. Luckily he’s Aus- tralian, so some of my shots are easy: “You’re making fun of my accent?” I like to remind my children of my country’s fortes: Thomas Jefferson, Duke Ellington, J.D. Salinger. And I give them books about our space ad- ventures and remind them that “The Simpsons” is an American show. The first thing I did when both chil- dren were born was bring them to the American embassy to get their pass- ports. It was my gift to them. Their tiny faces peered from their first pass- port photos. The consular officer was not very helpful with my son, however: Why was a U.K. resident trying to ob- tain an American passport for her Sin- gaporean-born child? And, yes, there are moments when, faced with a hundred TV channels of screaming, weight-challenged fellow Americans, I have to ask, “Who are these people?” Which is the main difficulty. How can I represent a country with 350 mil- lion people, 50,000 miles of highway and a hundred kinds of bagels? I can’t. But still I try. It means something to me to be American, but how can I pass that to my children? Nationality will not be their defining feature. Oh sure, they like the friendly people they visit once or twice a year, the awesome national parks and the sensational choice of ice cream at the local Safeway. But I doubt they will ever feel a pa- triotic pang. When I told them how in elementary school I put my hand on my heart and pledged allegiance to the flag, they laughed. I blushed, as if di- vulging some kinky sexual indiscretion. On the way back from our latest trip to the States, my husband bought me a small American flag to wave. I grinned. He grinned back. Maybe he does get it, after all. I’m more consciously American, it turns out, than many of those who’ve never left the country. Which is why, when I’m gone, I want to be sure that my children work hard, play fair and remember that a country that produced Ella Fitzgerald, the space shuttle and the Pop-Tart is truly loveable. ■ Nina Killham, the daughter of an FSO, is the author of three novels, How to Cook a Tart, Mounting Desire , and Be- lieve Me. She now lives in London with her Australian husband and two trinational children. Her Web site is I know I’ve become entirely too sensitive. 68 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 0 R EFLECTIONS Pop-Tart Diplomacy B Y N INA K ILLHAM