An American Immigrant, in Three Bruce Springsteen Tunes
What rock music taught me about being American
“Born in the U.S.A.”
Picture it, a most American of all American pursuits, either an Indian Guides weekend or a weekend for Cub Scouts. It was my brother’s gig, but we all went along, me, my mom, and my dad, and after we’d set up our family tent, I spotted a kid from my school and his younger brother, marching towards our tent in jeans and T-shirts. One of them had a boombox on his shoulder. I just knew I was witnessing something so American it was nearly sacred. From the boombox Bruce Springsteen was yelling like he does: “I was born in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A.!”
They stalked, back and forth, in front of our tent, and I slowly realized that we were the target of something ugly. I stood in the flimsy tent doorway with my hands on my hips and screamed at them, “I’m Taiwanese, and I’m proud of it!”
In retrospect, not the right thing to say, and not even how I felt. But I was trapped between my parents, just behind me in the tent; their pride in our home country; and my identity as an American kid. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt that day, too.
I knew what that song was about, even then. You have to work hard to escape its criticism of the way America treated its veterans returning from the Vietnam War, and of the war itself. But I forgot at that moment, maybe because all I could hear was the line about an American guy being sent overseas to kill “the yellow man.”
I didn’t pay much attention to Springsteen for a long time after that.
I want to uncouple this song from the image of Brad and his brother Paul, striding across the grassy slope, interrupting my line of sight, but I can’t.
I went to a Bruce Springsteen concert in the early 2000s. He played “Born to Run.” I sang along. He played “Thunder Road.” I tried, and failed, to sing along. He did “Rosalita” and “Hungry Heart” and “Brilliant Disguise,” and I listened eagerly for each line, wanting to…