What’s An American?

A dozen years ago I became a US citizen, joining my children and circle of friends in this grand experiment. It wasn’t easy dealing with the INS and a battery of incompetent petty bureaucrats who forced us to take our fingerprints four times on four separate occasions spread over two years (for a variety of ridiculous reasons) and delayed passing our papers onto the next steps in what is already an unwieldy process, until in a historic courthouse in Springfield we took our vows, swore fealty to the US flag, and severed ties with all other “foreign” powers.

I must admit that I had misgivings about the whole process. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of national identity, for it hovers on the brink of jingoism. It isn’t that I didn’t want to become a US citizen—if you live someplace it’s nice to participate fully in that society; it’s just that I’ve always been suspicious of barriers (geographical, religious, or any other) that tend to isolate and separate communities. I have pondered over the meaning of nationality and citizenship for a long time. I did it in India when, as a Catholic in a largely Hindu community, I grew up feeling somewhat distanced from the greater society in which I found myself—for many years much of it was my own doing, until I embraced the greater ethos of Indian societies which nestles beneath the surface, has nothing to do with race or religion, and is mined only through a conscious effort. The last decade of my stay there witnessed a widening of the edges of my personal credo and, by the time I left, my closest friends (with whom I am still in touch) came from all the colorful communities that dot the Indian landscape—Hindus, Muslims, Parsees…

The huge discovery for me was the realization that a nation does not need to be defined by the ethos of any particular culture; in fact, the vibrancy of any country exists in its intercultural exchanges, however tiny—the more open those interactions, the less imposing the artificial boundaries that contain them. In the America of today, almost everyone comes from somewhere else—in that platitude lies a kernel of progress. We’ve been raised to believe in a melting pot society where unique cultures are boiled away to create a hodgepodge blend of something new—an American-ness.  A paradox! For as soon as that enters into the equation we start rejecting “the other” in favor of what is “ours.” And there’s the rub!

For me I know what being an American is not. It isn’t beating my chest and saying that this is the greatest country in the world: there’s no such thing; it isn’t the flag; it isn’t military or economic control of the world; it isn’t freedom (in so many ways a questionable concept)! It may be only one thing, and I’m still not sure of this because, as you know, all of it is an experiment. Being an American means looking around me and celebrating the fact that there’s a Filipino in the room, and a Mongolian, and someone from the Congo, Botswana, Cameroon, and Rwanda (they’re all here, you know); a Spaniard, an Italian, and a German…Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian and Pakistani…Palestinian and Israeli…English and Irish, etc. I suppose being an American means in some way rejecting the term American and celebrating the world, for in so many ways the world is here and we often find so many ways to reject it!  And if we can learn to cherish that idea, geographical barriers will lose their jingoism!

And that’s my thought for the day on this Fourth of July.






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