With this week ringing in July 4th already, I can’t help but reflect on how my love for the USA has evolved, matured, and changed through my life so far. I am a ‘born-aboard citizen,’ which is a hard concept for a lot of people to understand (truthfully I don’t know why). I have had numerous occasions (e.g., applying for different visas, various jobs, and the DMV) where it has been a complete headache to explain. Being a born-abroad citizen, in my case, means that I was born in another country (India) to U.S. citizens, which makes me automatically a U.S. citizen.
Most of my childhood was spent outside of the States. When I was growing up, the U.S. was this utopia that people talked about, and you saw in the movies. It was a place that I always dreamt of living in – I wanted to eat pizza every day, living in a high rise that has a perfect view of other high rises, wear 7-inch heels, and drive a DeLorean. Isn’t that funny? That was my view of America.
I still remember my first day in the US. We landed at JFK, and as a child, I remember looking up at the high rises in NYC and thinking of it as this future ideal world. I was in awe. Then I fell asleep, and after a few hours, I woke up to the sight of fields and a couple of cows. I was baffled. As a kid, I don’t think I realized the U.S. was more than New York City. I soon learned that there is more to the U.S. than NYC and fell in love with upstate New York.
It was the time I learned what freedom meant. It was the privilege to drive anywhere I want, talk to anyone I want, date anyone, study what I wanted, eat what I wanted, and even Google whatever I wanted. It was the little things, but it was not something I was used to looking back at my time outside of the U.S.
Then 9/11 happened, and it was the first time I saw America in a different light. It was always a country that felt untouchable, diverse, and tolerant. Being in New York during 9/11 changed my life. I joined the Army to serve the country that I loved. It was also the first time I heard about religious differences. Maybe I experienced it before, but I never really noticed it. It changed with 9/11 for me. People would be hesitant to talk to me because of my religion. Previously, people would be curious about Hinduism, but now I was (and sometimes still am) asked ‘how does it compare with Islam?’ I didn’t know how to react to that. And in the Army specifically, it was the first time I experienced the ‘us vs. them’ attitude.
Looking back, I wish I did more to promote inclusivity and assimilation as a human being. However, my love for the U.S. deepened during my time in the service, and I was surrounded by people who loved this country as much as I did. It was a mission statement that was easy to believe in.
I moved on to the ‘normal’ world, and I traveled to various continents where I learned that my experiences and rose-colored glasses could cloud my judgment of the U.S. I had to learn that other people’s views are just as important and valid. It was a hard concept. I remember getting into arguments with my friends over the need for military expansion or the administration’s policies and thinking, ‘Is it still patriotic if you don’t believe in various policies?’ I have come to learn that in many cases, dissent is what makes America beautiful – we have the ability and the privilege to think and express our views in nearly any way we want.
Reflecting on how my love for the U.S has evolved and matured, I can’t help but tell a few stories. Earlier this year, my friend and I were coming out of an ethnic restaurant to my car, and two people decided to call me names and curse at me. I was flabbergasted by the words coming out their mouth. Then, a month later, a cashier at the container store refused to acknowledge me because of the color of my skin and started muttering about ‘building a wall’ and ‘dirty Mexican.’
To tell you the truth, the only thing I could think about was, ‘Where am I? is this still my America?’ I believe these are outliers and far from the norm. Did those incidents hurt? Of course, they did, but I think that we are better than that as a society and I see tangible evidence of this every day with my friends, my family, my colleagues, and strangers. I believe America is still a beacon of hope.
Moreover, what’s cool about America? We all have the opportunity to fight these bigoted and xenophobic people by fighting for policies that we believe in and sharing our collectively tolerant views in the marketplace of ideas. History and the vast majority in this nation currently will judge them wrong and us correct. We have the opportunity to cultivate the courage to stand up against these misguided people, but we can do it in a way that still honors them as individuals despite their point of view. Again, dissent is beautiful – the differing opinions of everyone collectively make up the best quality of our democracy, the marketplace of ideas.
I don’t know if I still have the rose-colored glasses or the futuristic view of the U.S. But I think my view of the U.S. is better and more evolved than that. It’s the same as loving my best friend that sometimes fights and disagrees with me. In the end, however, that friend will always be there for you. If you don’t believe in the current policies or someone’s opinion, then what? Use the marketplace of ideas. And the best part? You don’t have to be famous to make a difference. It is still the proverbial promised land.
President Lyndon Johnson said it best, ‘I am a free man first, I am an American second, I am a United States Senator third, and I am a Democrat fourth – in that order.’ We are all free men and women in this country, and our citizenship binds us together. So let’s celebrate July 4th this year with that in our thoughts. Happy Birthday, America!