Citizen

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.

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9 thoughts on “Citizen

  1. This was a comment once posted on a NYT article, I thought it was worth reproducing here,

    “I think America and immigration are over-rated. This is actually true with much of the new world.

    Immigrants rationalise why they ‘had’ to immigrate and come up with sentimental accounts surrounding them. With the exception of people brought over as slaves and some extreme examples, in most situations, immigration was a conscious and independent decision by the individual or the family. Somehow, in all articles related to immigration, the roles and responsibilities of the immigrants to their countries/ communities of origin is totally glossed over and ignored. Who will solve the problems in the countries and communities of origin which ’caused’ them to immigrate in the first place? While many first generation immigrants send funds and help their home countries/ communities, these are poor substitutes for being there physically and helping the communities solve the problems.

    At least in the last few decades, more space is being given in mainstream discussions to the debilitating effect on the original inhabitants (natives or aboriginals), their culture and society in the new world by immigrants. This is a positive development in portraying the immigration process with fairness.

    If individual choose to move to another country or community, they have a right to do so and it is their choice. But to portray it as something romantic and heroic, in most cases, seems to an unfair way of describing a simple, mundane and probably pragmatic move to a more comfortable life without the burden of fulfilling old world responsibilities.”

    I would be interested in what your response to this comment would be, especially in light of your last statement. I personally feel that high skilled immigrants and the media here really tend to romanticize the immigrant ‘experience’, but I might be wrong.

    P.S.: You are right that Obama’s victory made Americans feel good about themselves, but so does bacon.

    1. Vikram, the NYT comment is really interesting. When I read through it, I thought that it made a lot of sense and I wondered why it never occurred to me before. Don’t you think the comment is slightly harsh, though? Those who migrate may do so precisely because they feel powerless when faced with the many ills of their own country. I find it hard to believe that a normal citizen of any country would feel loyalty towards a nation or system that doesn’t treat him well – there’s no sense of “duty” that would make him stay. It’s obviously a vicious cycle for the nation when these people leave, but I think the commenter overestimates human altruism, especially when faced with the chance to better their own situation. That’s not to say that the situation doesn’t need to improve, though.

      The “debilitating effect on the original inhabitants (natives or aboriginals), their culture and society in the new world by immigrants.” I can of course think of examples in history that would hold true for this statement. What about immigrants right now in modern society, though? That’s an interesting angle.

      I should clarify that I didn’t come to the US because I thought Singapore was a worse place to be, although like any country it has its faults. My choice was a pretty pragmatic and mundane one (the degree program I’m pursuing) but I was surprised to discover that I liked the US for a number of its qualities that had little to do with the academic freedom I had. In that sense, I don’t resemble the immigrants that the comment talks about – and because of that, I don’t think my feelings towards America’s “ideals” are nearly as romanticized (I agree I’m probably being generous). But my generalization about immigrants coming to the US for its ideals *was* me romanticizing. Thanks for pasting that comment.

      Apologies for being dense, but I didn’t understand the point behind your last sentence. Were you saying that Obama’s victory wasn’t as big a deal as everyone made it out to be, from an immigrant standpoint?

      1. I will address the last question first. You said that Obama’s victory, “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”

        I think this is problematic. Would John McCain’s election not have been meritocratic ? Although born into a more privileged environment, he did distinguish himself in the military and in politics. Obama’s election has been spun as a ‘reaffirmation’ of American equality (read: moral superiority), less than 5 years after they started an illegal war. I am not questioning American society’s openness and egalitarianism, but as usual they are guilty of projecting their own failings (here racial discrimination) onto others. There are many other countries where oppressed minorities have risen to the top of the political ladder, but that is barely noticed and sometimes even ridiculed.

        Now to the core question.

        “Those who migrate may do so precisely because they feel powerless when faced with the many ills of their own country.”

        This is certainly true of many immigrants, persecuted minorities, political dissidents and intellectuals. But I can tell you it is certainly not true of many (perhaps the majority) of Indian migrants. There is a very cold economic and social logic to the migration of Indian doctors, engineers and other high skilled migrants. And it has lead to a huge negative social impact on India. The roots of the tribals exploitation in the forests of Orissa lie very much in the desire of an urban ‘educated’ Indian to replicate the Western lifestyle of his/her cousins abroad.

        Think of the movies of India today. Movies are important, because they do reflect the bottled up aspirations of the ones watching them, whether it is cruising on smooth expressway in America, or watching a scantily clad girl romance a fat, ugly dude (describes most male viewers of Indian cinema). We have to ask why does a 2000 year old civilization, a nation created by men like Gandhi and Ambedkar has to rely on Western ‘diaspora’ and locales for cinematic inspiration. The diaspora, through its sentimentalized nationalism + ostentatious display of material wealth and happiness creates an illusory, make believe world that urban, middle class India collectively inspires to either migrate to or replicate. ‘Other’ collective goals such as universal literacy, health care, justice are easily forgotten.

        Migration or rather the possibility of migration has seriously crippled middle class India’s interest in the collective well being of all Indians. The parity the elite of India wants is with their Western ‘cousins’, hence the relentless pursuit of superpower status, that is going to bring little good to the society as a whole.

        But perhaps most importantly, migration or rather the possibility of migration has led to a general lack of interest in improving institutions and government in India as a whole. Why should I protest corruption and decay in Indian academia if I know my kids are going to make their futures in America ? The possibility of migration, prevents the small sacrifices needed across a society to improve the lives of future generations.

        “I think the commenter overestimates human altruism, especially when faced with the chance to better their own situation.”

        The problem is not with the individual, it is with the society as a whole. Of course, at the individual level one will try to do the best for him/herself. But this notion of ‘best’ is not an absolute one. It depends very strongly on the societal norms in the society and other external factors. If Indian society had not elevated migrants to some exalted status and Indians in America not constantly flashed their wealth and success, in addition to their relentless claims to the culture of the country they abandoned, most young people in India would not treat migration as the holy grail and be more restless for their future and that of coming generations. Migration cannot be looked at as a purely personal action, especially when it happens at the numbers and levels as it has happened between India and America.

        Think about the number of ‘Indians’ who show up at Diwali festivities versus those that would show up for a Bhopal victims solidarity rally.

        The flight from India is unprecedented in the history of mankind. India is going to a pay a huge price due to it, political, intellectual and social, and no amount of investment from the diaspora will reverse the damage. In fact, in many cases (as you are aware) it will do even more damage.

        P.S: In absolutely no way is this as a personal comment on you, it is just a generally important issue that I feel needs to be debated openly.

  2. Ah, I think I see what you’re getting at now, regarding Obama’s victory. By the way, I find the sheer amount of rhetoric about race (and the hypersensitivity to giving offense) rather disturbing. Why were people so quick to read racism into that “You lie!” incident? It’s as though Americans are deliberately and inflicting the crime of racism on themselves so that they can somehow make up for the previous centuries. This country doesn’t seem to do anything by halves, which is also something that fascinates me. Do you think that this intense hypocrisy of America’s actions is really just a result of how polarized the country is – meaning that it’s not a function of individual Americans’ hypocrisy?

    No worries, I do understand you don’t mean these comments to be personal 🙂 (I explained my situation in my last comment because you referred to the last line of my post). Your comments do make a lot of sense – I never realized what this escapist attitude meant for immigrants’ countries of origin, although I knew that it was a conscious decision to leave a bad condition behind.

    “Think about the number of ‘Indians’ who show up at Diwali festivities versus those that would show up for a Bhopal victims solidarity rally.” — The quotation marks suggest you don’t really think of Diwali-attending Indians as Indians (vs. Bhopal-attending Indians). But whether within India or outside of it, that’s a pretty harsh judgement on very ordinary people who’d rather attend something culturally very important to them than something that’s emotionally more remote and much more sober (or maybe that wasn’t the best example?).

    Which brings me to my actual question. What do you think should be done (or is being done) to change that kind of mindset – especially the immigrant escapist sort?

  3. “It’s as though Americans are deliberately and inflicting the crime of racism on themselves so that they can somehow make up for the previous centuries.”

    Americans have to show the others how ‘not racist’ they are. Just like rich Indians have to show the world how ‘not poor’ they are.

    “But whether within India or outside of it, that’s a pretty harsh judgement on very ordinary people who’d rather attend something culturally very important to them than something that’s emotionally more remote and much more sober”

    But see, it is not about whats important. It is about selective appropriation for the sake of what is at the end of the day, crass consumption. Why not the same intensity for Bhopal or hunger in India ? You see it everywhere, whats so remote about it ?

    “What do you think should be done (or is being done) to change that kind of mindset – especially the immigrant escapist sort?”

    Well, this is not an easy question to answer. I think for most people, once they have migrated here, there is little that can be done. Some organizations here do help, but their mostly monetary help means little when one thinks about the scale and depth of the problem back home. I dont have a satisfactory answer (which is why I want this discussed).

    The answer to this question perhaps lies in the remedy to the broader sense of desperation that pervades the Indian middle class.

    1. “You see it everywhere, whats so remote about it?” I think there’s a remoteness that can be achieved through de-sensitization to issues, where you see this sort of thing all the time and you’re numb to it after a while. Not everyone has the mental fortitude to see terrible things happening and think of a way to deal with them instead of trying to ignore them. This isn’t an excuse for apathy, just a possible explanation. And there is another kind of remoteness which, I believe, has nothing to do with ubiquity and everything to do with how much it impacts you. Unless you’re directly involved, stuff in media really seems more like “news” to most people. Again – not an excuse, but an attempt to explain that kind of mindset.

      I’m curious about this one line: “I think for most people, once they have migrated here, there is little that can be done.” I understand you’ve lived here in the US for a while, and you’re also active in AID which raises awareness for many causes (and I believe has some hands-on, direct approaches to improving education in India as well). Don’t you think that’s a step in the right direction? Do you think that membership in such organizations has fallen off in recent times? What I’d be interested in is – how would you appeal to someone to join such a cause – just an average, ordinary person who’s more interested in himself than in making those small sacrifices for the country, which you mentioned before.

      What did you mean by a sense of desperation?

      About remedies – Nazar recently ran this article about various social justice programs in India which actually appear to be doing pretty well (you commented on it too, if I recall correctly). What do you think of the impact and sustainability of those programs?

  4. “I think there’s a remoteness that can be achieved through de-sensitization to issues, where you see this sort of thing all the time and you’re numb to it after a while.”

    Sumita, the ‘desensitization’ does not come from daily exposure but from the inability of society and its leaders to articulate the resolution of these issues as important collective goals. The roots of this inability are very deep and will take a momentous, sustained effort to remove. Let me give you the example of the city of Delhi. In recent years it has built an excellent metro rail system, good roads and other infrastructure. But why isnt Delhi able to do better for its street children ? Is ensuring that kids go to school more technically difficult than building a sophisticated transportation network ? No. But the society of Delhi is unable to press for the rights of its children.

    By your logic, shouldnt Indians be desensitized to foreign aggression in faraway Kashmir and Arunachal too ? But I dont know if you have ever seen the kind of intensity these issues provoke in middle class India, even when they are abroad ? Kashmir, Arunachal and ‘world-class’ infrastructure are part of middle class India’s collective imagination. Middle class India imagines a world of possibilities in these places, think of all the movies where actors romance in the cool mountains, or cruising on smooth foreign roads. This is not wrong in itself, but the point is that society’s leaders, politicians, media and diaspora have inserted them into the middle class’s imagination. The poor are not present in the imagination, not because of individual apathy but because somehow they are not associated with an imagination of India’s future. We dont see the beggar girl at the signal as a possible doctor, or artist who will make us proud someday, we see her as the product of the mythical ‘overpopulation’ (see footnote), corruption etc, which have little to do with why five year old girl has to beg instead of going to school. There are plenty of countries in the world with a lot fewer resources, much more corrupt governments that have done much better for their people.

    “I understand you’ve lived here in the US for a while, and you’re also active in AID which raises awareness for many causes (and I believe has some hands-on, direct approaches to improving education in India as well). Don’t you think that’s a step in the right direction?”

    About AID, not only the projects and the issues, it is also the education that it provides to us that is very important. Like you pointed out, membership and interest is low, but the much bigger question is, why were no AIDs formed in India ? After all, all AID is a some students and some professionals spending a little bit of their time trying (mostly) to fund others who are doing grass roots work. Virtually all AID chapters in the US are university student organizations, I can tell you categorically, that there are no AIDs in the IITs, NITs or other ‘elite’ Indian universities. Its only AID volunteers who have moved that have initiated the creation of AID chapters in Indian univs.

    “how would you appeal to someone to join such a cause – just an average, ordinary person who’s more interested in himself than in making those small sacrifices for the country, which you mentioned before.”

    Sumita, if the person is not interested in even making small sacrifices, then convincing him or her is very difficult. The key is to understand why the person doesnt want to (or cant) make those sacrifices. Is it because of personal problems at home ? Then we cant expect them to make time for AID. Is it because of lack of confidence ? Then we can try to make people believe in their own power to bring change. But I feel a lot of times, people are just not inspired by the kind of work NGOs do. I am not surprised we struggle to inspire, initial inspiration for me came with two movies, Shool and Swades. I did not just join AID after watching them, but they lit the flame.

    “What did you mean by a sense of desperation?”

    India’s middle class is anxious and desperate. And it shows. It knows deep down inside that the country is in a bad situation, it knows that people today dont follow the principles on which the nation is founded. My parents and relatives repeatedly try to reassure themselves and me, that yes somethings are happening, mainly by pointing out that roads are being built. But the number of times they point that out and almost how every discussion turns to the topic of the state of the nation, indicates the anxiety and desperation.

    “What do you think of the impact and sustainability of those programs?”

    Yes, those programs are a great step. They are sustainable as long as people are mobilized on the right set of values (for eg. avoid the superpower syndrome). I think this generation of Indians is better in this respect than the ones immediately before them. I think there is great optimism in the new middle class because they have done very well for themselves, a lot depends on how this optimism is channelized.

    Footnote: Only the US has more arable land than India (but it doesnt have as good weather for agriculture, most places can grow food all year around) and only Canada and the US have more water.
    Also see, http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/is-overpopulation-the-cause-of-poverty/

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