I am a first generation American. My parents, who unlike me never converted their permanent resident “green cards” into citizenship papers, asked me recently whether I am proud to be an American. My response didn’t come quickly, and with each day that passes, I find myself reviewing and revising the answer I eventually gave.
I’ve lived in America since I was five years old, and have been a U.S. citizen since I was 21. As a child, I clung pretentiously to my country of origin, feeling that being “other” made me special. In hindsight, I could afford to do that, because I was a white, English-speaking immigrant who passed for American in every way except for a few vestiges of the British accent I’d once had--the accent my parents swear vanished the exact moment my feet touched American soil. I never faced xenophobia or hatred for being an immigrant: the most I endured, other than some mild teasing, was the nagging feeling that my loyalties were a touch more divided than my 5th grade classmates’ during our Revolutionary War unit. To this day, people scoff when I identify as an immigrant. Nevertheless, I am one: my sister and I inhabit different identities from the ones we might have had, and the ones our parents have; we are divided, as a family, and that has significance.
My decision to apply for citizenship came, not coincidentally, after I spent a semester in Cambridge, England. Those months were eye-opening: the British identity I’d worn so proudly for my whole life was strangely invisible to the English students I met. Instead, it turned out that the moment I opened my mouth, I was an American. Even though this preceded the divisive presidency of George W. Bush and subsequent ramping up of anti-American sentiment in England and Europe, it was common for a new acquaintance to say something like, “Well, I hope you don’t mind, but you know, we really hate Americans.” These encounters literally reshaped my identity: for the first time, I was forced to abandon my rather lofty, supercilious relationship to America and either capitulate that I and everyone I knew was despicable simply by virtue of our nationality, or defend my home. I chose the latter. At that time, the worst thing about America seemed to be its lowest-common-denominator cultural creep, but that didn’t feel as insidious or hateful as, say, England’s colonial history. For the first time in my life, I felt like a real American, and within months of returning home I was standing before a judge in a group of Spanish-speaking immigrants, taking my citizenship oath. Weeks later, I voted for the first time.
It wasn’t long, though, before I had to reckon with my divided self. The following summer, I attended a theater program in London that was half American students, and half English or European students. A playwright I idolized came to conduct a workshop--I was sure it was going to be the highlight of my time there. She divided us into Americans and, for the sake of the exercise, “English” and had us sit across from each other on the floor in two rows, divided by a line of tape on the dusty theater floor. In turn, we each had to say a stereotype about the others’ country. I have no idea what the ultimate point was, because after five minutes, I was crying too hard to continue.
Here are a few of the stereotypes of England I said or heard: “Double decker buses. High tea. Red phone booths. Marmite. The Queen.” Here were some replies we Americans received: “Teen pregnancy. Violence. Guns. Racism. Drugs.” The whole exercise sounds silly and clichéd--although it can’t have been, because that writer is a certified genius--and I can’t fully account for the power of my response. But I couldn’t recover, and spent the rest of the day sitting in the back row of the theater, weeping uncontrollably. I suppose it exposed the deep rift in my identity: I didn’t know which I was any longer, American or English, and the side where I’d so recently planted my flag was fraught with problems and contradictions. Ultimately, that day hardened my convictions that American was what I was now, and I chose to wear that identity proudly despite its challenges.
The George W. Bush years tested me sorely, like many of my fellow citizens. Yet my green-card-carrying mother, who has spent almost her entire adult life in America, was even more outraged and appalled than I was; I worried that one day I would pick up the paper and discover she had chained herself to the White House railings. But while she picked fights and blew up decades-long friendships in furious arguments over the Iraq War and its devastating toll, I didn’t lose my faith in this country. Although I felt that Bush and the GOP had more or less rigged the 2000 election, I didn’t lose my belief in our electoral process or our democratic institutions. Those years felt like a terrible aberration, a stolen election made infinitely more terrible by the 9/11 attacks—without which the worst Bush might have done was return to the conservative policies of Reagan and his father—but an aberration nonetheless, from which we as a country would eventually recover. I defended America even as I abhorred much of what was done in its name. In my name.
And then came Barack Obama. Though this was the fourth Presidential election I voted in, he was the first candidate whose victory made me weep with joy. Barriers smashed, the restoration of progressive ideals, a defiant answer to all those who saw America as a bastion of racism and corporate greed. Look what we did, we the people. I’ve never been prouder to be American. The public face of America finally, finally represented what I saw as our greatest virtues: a self-made man, the son of the heartland and the son of an immigrant, the purest embodiment of the American Dream I could imagine, a person who combined the highest ideals with compassion and intellect. Did terrible things happen during Obama’s eight years in office? Of course. And although he bore some responsibility for some of them, such as the deepening of government surveillance programs or a sharp increase in deportations, I always believed he made decisions for the good of the country, even if sometimes he was wrong. When innocent children were murdered in Newtown, CT, he spoke from his heart, with tears running down his face. When a hate-filled racist killed parishioners in Charleston, he sang “Amazing Grace” in a voice choked with emotion. He was hamstrung by our system of government and unable or unwilling to sacrifice everything on the barricade of gun control, but I was still so proud to be one of the millions of Americans who voted for him. I was so proud to be an American.
I would have cried again if HIllary Clinton had won the Presidency on November 8th, 2016, but I never had the opportunity to cry those tears. The tears I shed that night and well into the morning of November 9th were wholly different: raw, bitter, heart-wrenching sobs that didn’t stop for hours and kept catching me again in the days that followed. I am not one of those people who can’t believe what’s happened since the inauguration of our 45th President: I cried that night because I knew exactly what kind of person he is, and what a disaster he would be for our country. He’s exactly the President his campaign promised he would be. And knowing that he won despite losing the popular vote, that it’s likely he won with the help of America’s worst enemy, that he won because enough people were expertly lied to or manipulated or simply unable to distinguish between a con man and a politician just makes it that much more impossible to recover from.
So last week, when my parents asked me whether I was proud to be an American, I hesitated for a minute before I said yes. I wasn’t lying, but there’s a new cynicism in that hesitation, a deep crack in the shell of my American identity. We need a mirror as a country, to see our flaws more clearly--how else can we try to fix them?--but instead we’re stuck in a fun-house hall of self-regard and American exceptionalism. As the President’s wholly fallacious yet stunningly dextrous redirection of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racism and police brutality demonstrates, patriotism is now no more than a tool with which to manipulate the masses: most Americans accept unquestioningly that we should be “patriotic,” but many have no idea what our country actually stands for. Football, country music, the star-spangled banner: these are mere symbols, not the substance of American identity. Peaceful protest, on the other hand, is the most American right there is, yet the President’s vociferous denunciations of it are met with rowdy acclaim from his supporters, who surely believe themselves as American as apple pie. The world is upside down.
I chose to belong to this country. I became an American because I wanted to be one, not because I happened by some quirk of fate to be born here. But I didn’t choose to be a gun, or intolerance, or racism, or misogyny, or a mass shooting. I didn’t choose a twisted version of “freedom” that actually threatens the freedom I thought my citizenship promised: the freedom to live in a just and peaceful world. After the events of the last year, I truly don’t know what it means to be an American anymore.
If your belief in this country isn’t shaken by the knowledge that you, your parents, your friend, or your children could easily be the next victims of an aggrieved man with an assault weapon, but your elected representatives can’t or won’t lift a finger to protect you, I am no longer your fellow American. If you discard all your morality and ethics to pursue greedy self-enrichment, I am no longer your fellow American. If you fail to see and be outraged by the racism and injustice that pervades our law enforcement system, I am no longer your fellow American. When you willfully turn away from the evidence that our system is failing us, all of us, I am no longer your fellow American. This is not what I chose.