I was in D.C. twice within a two week period at the end of June and the beginning of July. I went first in order to participate in the Pre Departure Orientation (PDO) for the 2015-16 Indonesian Fulbright ETA Cohort, and after a brief visit to North Carolina, I returned with friends to celebrate Independence Day in the Capital.
I’ve never had the opportunity to go to D.C., and so while I would have been excited for the PDO regardless of location, simply because I was thrilled to be meeting this year’s bunch of ETAs, I was unreasonably excited when I learned that we would also be in D.C. I’ve actually been in a number of capital cities around the world (Ottawa, Paris, Jakarta, Singapore) and even lived for a semester in one (London), but had never actually gone to the capital of my own country.
It felt strange, to be honest, to be a tourist in my own capital. Throughout the entire summer, my visits to various places were defined by an essential peculiarity; after so much travel on the other side of the world, I expected America to feel inherently like home no matter where I found myself, which of course was not actually the case: America is just as varied as any other country, with distinct cultures wherever you go. The truth is, I do not intimately know much of America, and should not have been surprised at myself when I had to look up the location of the White House: just because I am American, it does not mean I am familiar with a city I have never been in.
During the PDO, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for sightseeing, but I did take the opportunity to walk up and down the Mall one afternoon, and pop over to see the White House.
Though I’m embarrassed to admit it, if there hadn’t been tourists outside of the gates, I might have missed the White House altogether. For my entire life, the White house has towered in my mind, a palace-sized, impressively white building that screams “AMERICA!” It turns out the White House is just a really big white house; I’ve seen much more impressive houses for people far less well know than the President.
That the White House was smaller than I expected it to be might honestly have been a bit disappointing, had not I overheard a conversation between a tourist and a security guard. The tourist–who appeared to be from outside the U.S. based on the comparisons he was making to other capitals, though I cannot be sure–asked why the White House was not more heavily guarded by the military, the guard responded, “It’s not the President’s House. It’s the People’s House, so we don’t want a heavy military presence, because we want the People to feel welcome.”
America is far from perfect, but it is ideas like these that make me proud of the place where I was born. The idea could potentially be problematic, and who’s to say the guard even believed what he was saying. But that this idea can be expressed and potentially believed is a reassuring thought, for me at least.
The various memorials up and down the Mall were impressive and interesting (my personal favourite was the Lincoln Memorial, because as a child I was terribly unoriginal and Lincoln was my favorite of the U.S. Presidents), but perhaps the most memorable stop I made that day was to the Arlington Graveyard, and as part of that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I won’t pretend to be any kind of history or politics expert, and so I make no sweeping claims over the value or lack thereof as regards to conflict and war, but walking through row upon row of headstones, all numbered on the back and placed in labeled lots so that it is easier to locate individuals who died too soon… it was sad, and humbling, and overall an experience I am not sure I have fully processed yet.
When I visited D.C. later with my friends, we forwent going from memorial to memorial, and instead spent our time in some of the various museums in D.C. While I do have some problems with museums and the ways they have been operated throughout history, I have always loved them nonetheless. While much of our time was spent in various art museums, we also explored the Museum of American History, where we were able to see the flag which inspired the national anthem, a very impressive flag indeed.
While much of what we saw in the various art museums was part of the permanent collections, there were a few temporary exhibits which I really loved. In the National Gallery, there was an exhibit dedicated to Gustave Caillebotte entitled The Painter’s Eye, on display until October 4th, 2015. Caillebotte is an impressionist painter, and while impressionism is by far my favorite style of art (call me cliche if you will, but I will love it nonetheless), I had never heard of him; walking through the exhibit, I saw painting after painting which I recognized from art textbooks I have perused in my spare time, but had never known the artist. It was wonderful to have a name to out to some of my favorite paintings, and to be able to add him to my list of favorite artists.
A pair of exhibits in the Freer Sackler Museum, The Peacock Room Comes to America and Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterson’s Filthy Lucre were absolutely fascinating. James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room defines extravagance and wealth in my mind, and Darren Waterson’s re-interpretation of its excess was somehow simultaneously terrifying and therapeutic. The Peacock Room will be on exhibit until January 3rd, 2016, and the REMIX will be on display until January 2nd, 2017.
Perhaps my favorite exhibit was in the African American Art and History Museum: The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists. On display until November 1st 2016, this exhibit included a profusion of different pieces from various artists from all over Africa, some of which had been created specifically for this exhibition. The variety of interpretations of the different levels presented in Dante’s Divine Comedy gave me much to think about.
Being in D.C. for Independence Day was fun and a little surreal. 4th of July celebrations in my small hometown are full of red, white, and blue patriotism, but they lack the flair which is invariably present in D.C. I loved the parade and the broad representation it had of American culture; after spending almost a year explaining to people who had never met an American before that not all Americans look like, talk like, act like me, seeing much of that being celebrated was refreshing and exciting. The fireworks at the end of the evening were the most impressive I’ve ever seen, and a wonderful end to my time in D.C.