14 October 2016

What does it mean to be an American?

Listening to NPR this morning I had to stop and consider my response to the question posed at the top of a Morning Edition segment:

What does it mean to be an American?
For me, an immigrant, a naturalized citizen living and working in this country, it meant different things in years past than it means today.

As a kid, it meant coming to a place of opportunity, a chance for a better, more cultured life. It meant four seasons instead of two. It meant assimilating quickly to stop being teased about my accent by the American kids. It meant studying hard to be the brightest and seizing opportunities that my US-born peers ignored. It meant seeing the extended family infrequently, so clinging to the folks at home. It meant getting the chance to succeed and be recognized for that. It meant leaving behind the overwhelming odds of early marriage and kids. It meant that my mother, the catalyst for our move to the states, worked as a domestic by day and a student by night to achieve her goals—showing us that hard work and sacrifice are key.

Today it means much the same to me, but in a different context. Today, as an adult I’ve achieved advanced degrees in fields of my choosing, worked in several different arenas that allow me the chance to travel and live an uncomplicated life. I’ve married the person I fell in love with and feel no familial or societal pressure to have children. My mother, the licensed social worker, is now retired and moving back to the country she left decades ago, to enjoy two temperate seasons rather than suffer four.

While I am now much more comfortable with  myself as a foreign-born person, I have no residual Caribbean accent nor the ability to effectively simulate one, that makes me a bit sad today.

I’m cautiously optimistic about tomorrow, because in the thirty years that I’ve been here, this country has provided opportunities and lessons that were closed to me in the country of my birth. Undoubtedly we, America, can do the same for those still to come.

There seems to be much more xenophobia today than I noticed in my earlier years.

This is one source of the caution that tinges my optimism. What happens to those folks desperately in need of the chances I got? What happens to those who by their inclusion in American society, makes us a richer, better nation? What happens to those who are willing to work hard by day and study hard by night--but for the color of their skin, their thickly accented English, or their refugee status....

...but these are questions for another time.
(images found at (Wikimedia Commons, Getty, and Zazzle)