By R. Arun Kumar
I became an American last year. I got my citizenship after going through a moving ceremony held at the magnificent rotunda of the Masonic Center in San Francisco. I pledged allegiance to the United States constitution and the country and sang the national anthem with my right hand folded across my chest and covering my heart. In the same ceremony, 1200-odd citizens of 157 nationalities around the world went through the ‘lump in the throat’ moment to voluntarily give up their past identities and embrace the rights, respect and, for some, envy or enmity that comes along with the US passport.
America: The Land of Immigrants
Nearly 700,000 persons from 185 different countries became naturalized US citizens in 2006. There is no other country in the entire world assimilating so many new citizens and naturalizing such large numbers of immigrants from so many diverse nationalities! For four hundred years, beginning with the settlement of a marshy peninsula in the James River by English colonists in 1607 to the recent wave of H1-B technology professionals, United States has been the land of immigrants, the ‘shining city on the hill’ that has attracted people from around the world and has created a society that is prosperous, dynamic and democratic.People of Indian origin constituted the second largest number last year in terms of becoming US Citizens- I was one of the 47000+ Indians naturalized last year.
Growing up an American in India!
While I may have become an American citizen last year, I believe I have been an American at heart for several years now. I grew up wanting to ‘leave’ India for the US, just as many in India did, although I never really took that step until my twenty ninth year.
I grew up in a small, dusty town in the central parts of India. For a boy with ample spare time, a curious mind and an even more copious imagination, the town and neighborhood had very little to hold my attention or help my growth. I instinctively turned outwards and reached beyond through books, newspapers & TV (my family not having the wherewithal to travel too much), and the first seeds of ‘globalization’ in my aspirations and ambitions were sown in those formative years.
American Culture, Desi Boy
While at school, my imagination was fueled by the mysteries of space and the majesty of the Olympics: my admiration for the country that was clearly the world-beater grew rapidly.
I grew up on a steady diet of literature and reading that included a healthy dose of American classics and heroism. I devoured stories related to the bravery of early settlers in North America, the deadly skirmishes with the American Indians, the war of independence led by George Washington, the ‘log cabin’ roots of Abraham Lincoln, the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin, the amazing dare- devilry of the Allies led the US during World War II, the inspirational torch lit by John F Kennedy.
Given the small town we were in, and the lack of opportunities to get exposure to the wider world, my dad, bless his soul, would not lose any chance for us to see an English movie (usually once a month on a Sunday in the local cinema halls), even if some of them were not really meant for kids my age! I must have seen most of the James Bond movies by the time I turned 17. I loved Hollywood movies from back then, because they felt more authentic and real to me than the maudlin, melodramatic or fantastic stuff Bollywood was dishing out.
For me, American culture was mostly inspirational and awe-inspiring.
Missing Piece, Myself
A couple of my cousins had already emigrated to the States and I used to receive periodic updates on their lives through my favorite uncle. The letters from my cousin on life in the Purdue University campus, his career later on, his visits and stories, were all like so many pieces falling into place in my life’s jigsaw puzzle on the United States. I sort of internalized what living in the US meant. The only piece that seemed to be missing was me.
IIT: The Gateway to Americana
Joining IIT Bombay in 1987 was a key turning point. The desire to get to the United States had a channel now. In true American fashion, I was driven, idealistic and individualistic. And so were hundreds of others who had cleared the Joint Entrance Examination and gained admission to what was (and still is) considered one of the best and toughest undergraduate engineering colleges in the world. Apparently most of us had the same destination – get to the United States for higher studies and ultimately a successful career and life. And with the contrast in opportunities, and the standard of living, who could have really argued against it?
The stay in the cosmopolitan buzz of the IIT campus finally brought together the last missing element in my conversion to an American – music! It was as if one new dimension had just been introduced to my universe. The lust for life, the freedom to speak one’s mind, the pride that comes with knowing you are the best, the respect for alternative lifestyles, the confidence about the future, the deep-rooted individuality, the endless possibilities, all core American values, were somehow all fused into the lyrics, the music and the cadences emanating from the stereo system in the hostel lobby room.
The Road Less Traveled
Anyways, 1991 came around and as fate would have it, I was the one who decided against jumping at the first opportunity to go to the US – a teaching assistantship for a Master’s course in a school in Ohio. Turns out I was in the minority taking such a decision. Things were happening on the personal front and in the wider world around me that I could not and did not ignore.
But the things that had attracted me to America in the first place, the ideals she stood for, the freedom and independence she represented, the openness and fairness that she had institutionalized, the global society she embodied, the growth opportunities that she beheld, continued to exert their subtle pull on me…and so when I finally landed on its shores in April 1999, it was like homecoming for me.
America: The Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave
Recently, America itself has changed in ways that I may not agree with. Some freedoms have been muzzled, boorish behavior trampling good sense. Some of the economic luster has dulled, with other countries pulling ahead even in sports. A heavy weight of history and expectations hangs on Uncle Sam. But I do not see any fundamental shifts in its core, in its founding principles, in its celebration of life, in all those aspects that drew me to it in the first place. That, combined with the fact that it still retains the frontier spirit in many ways, the sense of exploring the boundaries, not being satisfied with the status quo, not clinging needlessly to traditions, makes it a winner.
Come this July 4th, Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent words in the Declaration of Independence continue to ring true: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…!
Being an American is a state of mind. I am looking forward to celebrating the Fourth of July as any true American would. As the star spangled banner lyrics put it, America will always remain ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’! And I am proud to be part of it.
Arun is a wannabe writer, also afflicted with wanderlust. His sales career with a leading IT services firm makes it hard to bring all that together but he is trying. He lives with his wife and two sons on the edge of the faultline in the Bay Area in California.
Picture by Owen JP under Creative Commons