personal history

The 2019 Women’s World Cup and my identity as an American

Watching the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals (USA vs. Netherlands), as an American living in the Netherlands, who doesn’t really watch football.

Note: in keeping with global convention, in this piece I refer to the sport as “football,” as distinct from the sport known as “American football.” Except when I’m referring to distinctly American institutions.

Last weekend, USA defeated the Netherlands in the final match of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, their first time winning a World Cup final on European soil. As an American living in the Netherlands, this meant that the country I was born in won against the country where I currently live.

I hadn’t been watching or following the tournament, and in fact I’d forgotten all about the ability of something like football to connect humans of all stripes, until I ran into Oliver, one of the cleaners at the office where I work, as he was coming out of a conference room the other day.

“Oh hey, congratulations,” he said to me.
“US women won the World Cup!”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Thank you.” I was aware that that had happened last weekend, but only in an abstract sense, having little to do with me.
“How do you feel about it? Being here in the Netherlands?” Oliver is from Mexico.
“How do I feel?”

I drew a blank. Not only had it not occurred to me that someone might congratulate me personally on my country’s victory in a sport I don’t follow, it had never occurred to me that that person might follow up with this question. And yet I did feel something.

“Are you proud?” he suggested.
“Yeah,” I said, surprising myself. “I am.”

What I actually felt, on top of unexpected gratitude at the goodwill of someone from a different country, was the surprise of memories bubbling up from long ago–altogether more than I could figure out how to express in that moment.

I guess this essay is the rest of my answer to Oliver’s question.

California, USA, 1999

If I didn’t know how to watch football before 1999, I probably learned how for the occasion of the Women’s World Cup of that year, which my parents started following on TV because China was doing well.

It was summer vacation, I didn’t have school. We’d just moved to a new house on the other side of town. I spent those days as I did every day of every summer: at home, by myself. Once I got hooked on the World Cup too, I had time to catch every match on TV, including the ones my parents couldn’t catch because they were at work.

The final was going to be USA vs. China, which would be a rematch of the finals in the 1996 Olympics, the last time the two teams had met on my family’s TV. That matchup was a sort of culture-refracting window through which even 11-year-old me could see the subtle differences between my loyalties and those of my parents.

Of course, I was American born and raised, and would root for America. But the Chinese team was the one full of people who looked like me, who looked how I would look when I grew up. Which said to me: Athletes can look like us, too. Not only like the bigger, taller white girls with ponytails. Growing up in the US, I’d already latched onto things that I felt differentiated myself from other kids–as a kid learns to do sometimes to not feel overwhelmed by the dominant way of being. The way I saw it, white kids could be loud, strong, dominant. But an Asian kid could be precise.

As for my parents, China was their country of origin, but the US was the country they had chosen for keeps. It was a complex question for them, too. If I had to try to sum up their stance, I’d say that they wanted the better team to win, and the losing team to have nothing to be ashamed of. In other words: Play your best, and don’t make any stupid mistakes.

On Saturday, July 10, 1999, the Women’s World Cup Final match featuring USA vs. China played out on the TV in our living room. My dad and I watched, absorbed, while my mom mostly did her usual chores and checked in every now and then. The agonizing scoreless match culminated in a penalty shootout that came down to the very last of the five rounds: Brandi Chastain of the US, who fired the ball past China’s Gao Hong and into the goal, winning the World Cup for the US women.

Of course I remember the now-iconic moment when her teammates sprinted down the field to swarm Chastain, who had torn her jersey off in triumph. Of course, it didn’t strike me as weird at all that she would do that. Who can know what it feels like to have just made that shot? What comes over you in a moment like that?

Only many years later did I hear of that moment again, that apparently it had stirred some controversy at the time, around the appropriateness of a woman removing a piece of her clothing in celebration. Sadly, by that point it came as no surprise to me that an expression of the purest joy of accomplishment, coming from a woman, would be met with tsk-tsking at some irrelevant aspect–the absurdity of that aspect being correlated with the magnitude of the accomplishment.

All these memories came floating right back to the surface, without words to encircle them after they’d lain dormant and wordless for twenty years, when Oliver asked me how I felt. I missed my chance to explain to him (and anyway it would’ve taken the rest of his shift for me to explain), but something about that exchange stuck with me. Over the weekend, I decided to watch a replay of the match he was referring to, the final match between USA and the Netherlands, even though it was a week after the fact and I already knew the outcome. I suspected that, just as it had when I was 11, the match would clarify for me my own feelings toward my country of birth and toward the country I now live in.

For one, I’d been surprised that I felt proud to hear that the US women had won. I only moved to the Netherlands less than a year ago–my first time living abroad–and I don’t intend to stay forever, and haven’t made a wholehearted attempt to integrate myself into Dutch culture. But, ever since moving to Europe, neither do I tend to express pride in being American. I’ve been very open about feeling troubled for America, for its viability as a livable country, for anyone.

On Saturday, I put the match on at home. As the players from both teams streamed onto the field, my feelings started to crystallize. Living in the Netherlands means that the Dutch aren’t some alien beings with weird names; they’re my neighbors, and some are my friends. I feel neighborly toward them, I wanted them to play their best, but I didn’t want them to win. The trophy, I wanted to be reserved for the US team, in no small part because of Brandi Chastain, I realized: because of a memory of triumph and joy lodged somewhere in my childhood. The fact that those 1999 finals became a part of me, grew up with me, and moved to Europe with me, is what makes the US women’s team my team, and not just the team from the same country that I’m from. Even if, of course, the team today contains none of the players who were on that field twenty years ago.

And, something else: in the time that I wasn’t paying attention to the sport, Megan Rapinoe, an openly gay woman, had risen to become co-captain of the US women’s team. When, two hours later, the US won the match (an excellent match, by the way, as far as I can tell), and Rapinoe held up the trophy in triumph as the face of the team, it occurred to me that this would probably make her the most famous women’s football player in the world right now. Though I’d never heard of Rapinoe before Saturday, that fact made me unspeakably happy.

My first crush on a girl ever in my life was for a girl at my middle school who was on the soccer team, who lived and breathed soccer. Of course she too had grown up with Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, all the (by that point) household names. This was two years after the 1999 Women’s World Cup. And she believed in me like no one else did then–as a friend, of course! My great, searing love went unrequited; I didn’t even recognize it as such. Having never seen any examples of women in love with women, I didn’t know any name for the thing that I felt. It would be years before her crossing into my life would be elevated from a source of shame to a thing of beauty, a thing to hold onto dearly and proudly for life.

So, that’s why it matters. The sport, this tournament, my watching it on a Saturday in July in the 21st century.

It means a person who is far away from his home country, as I am from mine, treated me with grace, even though people from my country inflict daily cruelties on people from his country.

It means an 11-year-old girl born to immigrant parents instantly grasps her own orientation toward the country she was born in, and her parents’ orientation toward the country they have chosen to adopt. It means that same girl, two decades later, can now grasp her orientation toward the country she decided to leave.

It means we’ve seen what it looks like for a woman to express the purest joy of accomplishment.

It means a teenaged girl has a name for the great, searing, mysterious love she feels for another girl.

It means, in these ambivalent times for my country, hope. Hope that we’ll don our jerseys, play on the field that the rest of the world is playing on, and shake hands with our opponents at the end of the day, no matter the outcome.