The New American

The next few posts will be about ideas of home – this ubiquitous and all-important idea, this thing that is meant to define us, this thing we run from and sometimes reject, this thing that conjures ideas of the hearthside, food, warmth, safety. This thing that is supposed to offer refuge and connection.

I’ve long felt without an anchor, felt the unmoored feeling of having moved around a lot; of having lost too many things – ‘my last, or /next-to-last, of three loved houses went’ – of having felt unsure as to the meaning of this word, home. This experience is a common one; it distinguishes me only in that it joins me, in some way, to the millions of displaced people who must feel these losses far more acutely than I can imagine.

I had a direct experience of this idea – of displacement, of finding somewhere new, of claiming losses and gains – on 24 February 2017, when I became a naturalized American. But what hit home, that day – both in the address of the judge who performed the naturalization ceremony for me and 48 other people – was not only that we are a nation of immigrants (we are, and we all know this), but, also, how much people want to come here. I really didn’t appreciate that before – Canadians, maybe, don’t appreciate that for a whole host of reasons.

But the other 48 people in that room were so, so happy. As we waited to be checked in, people smiled at *everyone*, shyly, openly. There were new suits with the threads as yet uncut (you know, the ones holding the slits in the suit jacket together. I’m sure they have a name; I don’t know it). There were price stickers on the bottoms of new high-heeled shoes.

These people were from Thailand, Burma, Mexico, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries I can’t remember. The judge was compassionate, incisive, thoughtful in his remarks, offering both congratulations and sympathy – because leaving one country for another is always, he said, bittersweet. He pointed out that many of these people may have been fleeing situations that were intolerable. I will never know their individual stories. But on 24 February, we all became each other’s people, as it were – we all became a new thing, at the same time. That is surely a rare occurrence.

Even so, as the judge reminded us all that we are as much citizens as any other American – and don’t let anyone tell you differently, he said – I was acutely aware that *I* won’t have to tell anyone differently, that until I say ‘eh’ or ‘house’ (or ‘hoser’, or ‘toque’), everyone will assume that I’m American. Even my accent is changing, my sister tells me, much to my dismay. I’m not a threat; I can be one of us. But all of these people are one of us. What makes an American, the judge said, is the desire to be one.

Which surely applies as much to undocumented immigrants as it does to the ones who, somehow, make it through the system. A few times the judge commented on how difficult our journeys to arrive at this point may have been. I was only too aware that my journey to citizenship has not been difficult at all. I came here in 2002. Eventually, I had a green card. In August 2016, because I was exhausted, I hired a lawyer, and a few months later, I sat in South Bend. It means something to me. But I can’t imagine it means as much as it might to the others in my ‘class’ (as the judge called it – I guess we are the naturalization class of 24 February 2017).

I’m an immigrant, but I’m a lucky one. I have resources at my disposal; I came here as an academic, not a refugee.

And this should be too obvious to say, but I’m not better because I’m not a refugee. I don’t contribute more; I contribute differently (and this is to say nothing of immigrants who work in fields far removed from what they are qualified to do).

The dream of America is a contradictory and conflicted one. In theory, it rests on a foundation of interconnectedness and common zeal: for what is creative, excellent, and good. In practice, it is sometimes those things: the dream of America inheres in the hum of imaginative production, too often yoked to capitalistic gain, but a creative vibe all the same. One that infuses the work I do here in ways that were never possible, for me, in my home country.

And in practice, it is often none of those things, having been built on slavery and abuse, its thriving economy owed to the forced labor of kidnapped peoples. Its very idea of interconnectedness undercut by the tyranny of the individual: that you can bootstrap it, do it by yourself. The dangerous paradox that we need everyone but also need no one.

And the paradox is dangerous because – we need everyone.

To see the joy and hope in the eyes of my naturalization classmates, two years ago, and to think of the callous dismissal of their very personhood by the policies currently being enacted. To think of the contrast between this and what I have experienced here: the ease of making friends, the intellectual vibrancy and curiosity, the appreciation for community, the desire to help.

America is all of the bad things and then some. People are dying at the border and living in camps even as I write this. What are we becoming; what have we become?

Because the beauty of America – the ideal of America – is to be found in its flexibility and openness. It is to be found in the proverbial circle that is never quite closed. It is to be found in our connections to each other and to everyone – what binds us together, not what keeps us apart.