Thursday, June 19, 2008

Everybody's All American

I grew up in a cul de sac neighborhood eating Ho Hos, hot dogs, and PBJs like all the other kids on the block. I played Atari and stayed up late to watch Friday Night Videos. I begged my mom for Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and Nike sneakers. I had a massive crush on Shaun Cassidy. I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout, even sold cookies door to door. I played field hockey and lacrosse. I went to prom, three times. I pledged my undying love to a sorority. I went to fraternity formals and tailgates. I was a school crossing guard and ran for class president. I oohed and aahed at fireworks every July 4th and eagerly tore into presents every December 25th. I ate up American history class (thanks to the fabulous Ms. Malone) and registered to vote as soon as I turned 18.

You could say I lived the all-American life, cliches and all.

I wasn't born an American. I was raised one.

If you want to get technical, I was born in Calcutta, India (a place the Department of Homeland Security fiercely scrutinizes in terms of immigration now). I've been in the States for 39 years. It is my home. While I look Indian, I am all American. I speak like an American, butchering a French accent as much as my classmates did; I even have a surprise Southern drawl if I have a few too many Yuenglings with my neighbors. I married an American (from the Heartland, doesn't get more American than that!). I have two boys who are first generation American. I have an American passport. To the world, I am officially American, on paper.

My children are 100% American, no matter how you look at it (or them). Sure, they are bi-racial, I suppose. I don't think of them in that way. Apparently many people do. Some people have even asked me if I'm their nanny. In typical Mac Daddy fashion, he says it's because I look too good to have had two kids. Ha! He just knows what to say to get him some hot action. This was a timely article in our local paper, considering an exchange I had with a neighbor Friday night.

Picture this: Four families sitting around the yard, chowing down some pepperoni pizza and cracking open some Miller High Lifes, children running amok, neighbors stopping by to say hey. The conversation turned to the movie "Star Wars." Mac Daddy proudly said he's never seen it (It's a point of pride and conviction for him at this point.). Oh, the crowd went wild, jeering him for being so out of touch with possibly the greatest piece of pop culture ever. I chimed in with "I hated Star Wars."

Jokingly, a friend said that hating Star Wars was practically unAmerican. Ha ha ha. We had a good laugh at that Chuck. Then another neighbor pipes in with, "Of course it's unAmerican. Look at who you're talking to."

Silence struck. All the fun and folly evaporated at that instant. I could feel my eyes on fire, my skin crawling, my heart racing, my teeth clenching, my brain reeling, my angry words swirling in my brain. I burst. How could I not?

I retorted with an emphatic, "Actually, I AM American."

"Well, not really. You weren't born here."

"That's not the only thing that makes someone American."

"Well, you're not American like I am."

"I didn't realize there were degrees of American-ness. I have lived here for 39 years. I was BRED an American. I lived all but one year outside of this country when I was a baby!" I was screaming now.

"Well, you weren't born here. You missed a year here." Was she seriously arguing this point?!

"Oh, I see. You absorbed all your American-ness in that impressionable first year of life.'

"Yes, that's it." Really?! Are you freaking kidding me? Does she really think this? Should I smack her or what?

"You know what? I actually represent the REAL America. The one that is based on the melting pot and freedom and immigration to a new world? You know, the one in history books regaling stories of Ellis Island and the first settlers? I am as American as they come and don't ever tell me otherwise. My family CHOSE to be American, never taking it for granted for one single second."

With that I stomped inside, fighting back tears. How could she question my identity?

In this day of mixed races, ethnicities, and religions among families, there are no easy physical identifiers anymore. Isn't that the beauty of our country? Is that not our brand? My heritage will always be Indian, and don't get me wrong, I'm damn proud of it. For starters, our cuisine and literary contributions to the planet far exceed America's. My neighbor likely sees that as not being proud of my country. Well you know what? Sometimes I'm not proud of my country. I'm certainly not proud of the numbskulls running it right now. What makes me proud is that I am free to state my opinion without fear of retribution.

I campaign fiercely in every election, taking time off from my paying job. Would I do that if I weren't an American who cared about her country and wanted to protect it? I am a proud American. Patriotic songs make me cry, and they did even before 9/11. When I was a kid I won a Mini Page contest for the Fourth of July. I took a popular car commercial of the day and drew pictures to go along with it as my way to depict America (Clearly advertising and marketing spoke to me from a young age.). I won the contest and got my picture and photo printed in the paper. I think my mom still has the clipping. She was that proud.

Now don't go telling me I'm not American.
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The Cube Monkey said...

You are more American than most that were born here "because" you don't take it for granted.
I'da kicked her in the shin.

Anonymous said...

Cube Monkey, don't think I didn't contemplate it.

Anonymous said...

Knock me over with a feather... I am absolutely apalled. What planet is she from? Clearly, not our American one. And if shes going on THAT sort've logic, well color me African b/c I lived in Africa more years than the U.S. up until recently. But betcha she'd say I'm still American tho b/c stick me in a crew of aging toothy blonde cheerleaders and I'd fit right in. Unbelievable. I'm with cube monkey, and I'll take the other shin. (p.s. how cool were Friday Night videos before there was MTV?)

Anonymous said...

I feel you...We pretty much have the same story. I was born in the Philippines but raised in the United States. I've encountered many racial insensitivities. Name it, been through it.

What I've learned from all of this is that you really can't fight ignorance.

The best part is that your life is actually way better than hers because you are a woman of your times. She on the other hand belongs to years gone by.

I would like to say don't worry about it and don't sweat it but I won't because I do know how it feels. I guess the best thing you can do is to teach your children how to be accepting and tolerant.

Man, I bet your neighbor won't even acknowledge that she's racist.

Anonymous said...

Chris, thanks for your wise words. You are right about the racism. Does any racist realize she is one?

Anonymous said...

I can't believe someone said that. You are probably more American than most. You vote, a lot of people don't and that is just the start. Apparently she doesn't look around and actually see what makes a person American. How snotty. I am so proud to have you for a favorite aunt.

Anonymous said...

Racist will never admit that they are. At least from my experience.

Anonymous said...

this reminds me of the time i was competing for a spot for girls state in high school, a program to teach girls about government. you had to be interviewed by these codgers from the american legion. they noticed i was jewish by my last name.

in my interview, they asked: if israel and america got into a war, whose side would you be on? i didn't see them asking other girls what they would do if america took on ireland, or england, or italy.

i was taught to be very respectful of my elders. that was a night when that particular ethic my parents painstakingly taught me was put to a serious test. i wanted to scream, "sorry, dudes. my ancestors were busy functioning as kindling in eastern europe to get here any earlier, and your ancestors didn't do squat to help them. sorry we were so late to the party." but i didn't. i wasn't mouthy at 17; that came much, much later.

somehow, if you are different from the norm of the nation's forefathers, you are suspect. all i can say is that honey, i'd be proud to have you on my team any day of the week :-) we're just as american as anybody else.

i guess you might say i am pretty intolerant toward intolerance ;-)