For three years, I’ve been homeless. And now I’ve decided that I want to belong to the United States of America.
It’s a radical change, for me. When I first arrived, every bus ride and food purchase and casual conversation was an anthropological adventure. “Look at these people!” I would exclaim to myself (sometimes my father and I exclaimed this together). “These accents, this individualistic behavior, why the hell can’t they use A4 paper like normal human beings?!”
Practically every online conversation with my dearest Singaporean friend included some guffawing about something else “these ridiculous Americans” were doing – news articles about the woman who called the police over her burger not being right, stupid TV shows, Bush’s latest diplomatic embarrassment.
I still can’t figure out if the month or the day comes first when I write my date; I find three-hole-punchers slightly excessive; I cannot say “rout” when I want to mean “route”; I haven’t been to a single football game. The number of Christian conservatives wasting time and energy over Creationism in classrooms incenses me, the transportation system in areas outside of crowded cities like New York is atrocious, and the pre-college education system is an insult to the average human’s intelligence.
So why have I decided that I love America?
Perhaps those years have simply worn me down. The state of my spelling is now atrocious because it combines both “s” and “z” words (capitalize, commercialise). I’ve picked up American phrases; I love saying “awesome”. I’ve come to accept that “a nice American accent” isn’t an oxymoron, because I recently discovered that Hugh Laurie has ceased to be significantly hotter with his British accent, although he continues to be totally smoking. (Or maybe it’s just the awesomeness of Hugh Laurie in general.)
But more than that, it’s something my friends and I were talking about today, just an hour ago, over dinner. Yes – America is a melting-pot of culture, where all traditions and practices bleed into each other and fuse with pizza and politics, where languages are lost through the rolling r’s and those damn twangy a’s. But it is, truly, anyone’s country. As a second-generation immigrant with those roots still plunged deep into Indian soil, it was fascinating to me to observe that no one, absolutely no one, gave a shit about whether their grandfather was German or Irish. “McVey!” I’d say, excitedly. “Stoll!” They’d shrug. “Yeah,” I was told, “somewhere in Netherlands. Maybe Ireland. I don’t know, who cares.”
And to a large extent, that is true, and that is wonderful. Who does care? It doesn’t matter if you’re a Valvano (my Italian-descent mad-genius professor), or a Chan, or a Patel, or a Rodriguez – saying that you are American just implies so many things about you which have absolutely nothing to do with your heritage.
Of course, some of those things are rather terrible: a general ignorance about the world, some obnoxiousness that expects everyone else to know and understand Americanisms, an apparently abysmal IQ. And there’s the other complaint – that America is a culture-less place, that in fusing these parallel universes of color and nationality, it’s lost those unique individualities, and has nothing left to offer that is “American” (especially not since the car economy crashed and burned).
What I’m trying to say is that it’s extremely important to remember how much America is a land of immigrants. No matter how the country thinks that immigration policies will help Americans keep their American jobs, it needs to come to terms with the fact that some of the values that make America American will continue to draw people to its shores.
And those are sorts of things that are written into the idea of the American Dream: aspiring to a greater life, working hard for it, grabbing your chance at happiness with both hands. And those are all things that immigrants believed in desperately when they first came here, and it’s part of the reason why I love America.
You can do what you want and be what you want – if you want to skip grades, or become a dropout and work, both are equally possible. If you, an immigrant, want to win the Nobel, that’s perfectly possible too – in fact, many of the American Nobel winners weren’t born American citizens. And from a young age, you’re taught the value of financial independence: whether it’s washing the car for money, or walking your neighbor’s dogs, or putting yourself through college. It’s also the strangest, most polarized country I’ve ever seen in my life, a country where Christian conservatives and Californians are just as likely to have the upper hand. India is also a country of contrasts – the rich and poor jostling side by side, perpetual screaming political matches – but for some reason the US seems far more sincere and far less melodramatic when its citizens demand to be heard.
I still don’t think this is the best place for pre-college education. The militantly secular, non-discriminatory policies annoy the crap out of me sometimes (because angry people aren’t taken seriously, and so many atheistic/female/colored citizens are pretty pissed off, thus endangering their own cause). But America is such a land of potential, of possibility. I don’t think Obama won just because he was almost the polar opposite of Bush – intelligent, believable, black – and people wanted a change; he won because Americans so desperately wanted their faith in their belief systems restored – the belief that the system which allows so much freedom and praises meritocracy should, and would, result in a non-white man in the Presidency.
It’s also a country that is intensely consumer-driven, where you can walk into a HEB or a Walmart and be flabbergasted by the choices available, as I still am. A country where innovation and cool new things are coveted, where I look into my Sky Mall magazine at San Fran and find the more bizzarely useful things. Or walk into Einstein’s and discover a new cream cheese schmear of the month like jalepeno pumpkin or something, for that matter.
It’s not as if I’m not occasionally (or often) lonely, as though I don’t feel the yawning gap of 8000 miles. But here is a country where conformity isn’t required (although labeling happens as a matter of course, even if you’re labeled non-conformist). Here is a country where I first learned to live by myself, to make some decisions on my own, to trust that I can do those things.
Singapore is my home. India is my homeland. And America is my country.