I was lunching with my friend Lane when, in response to something I said, he assumed the amused tone he acquires when he’s about to say what he thinks is profoundly obvious, and remarked, “Dude, get used to the idea; you’re an American!”
Which of course started me thinking about the whole matter. What does it mean to be an American? Or rather, what does it mean to me, because despite all the jingoistic jargon floating about these days I’m sure that all Americans have their own versions of national identity and I can’t claim to make any blanket generalizations about the subject.
As a graduate student in Tallahassee I would joke that the first stage of my Americanization had begun when I received junk mail in my name, something I wasn’t used to in India. I was now an official pawn on the chessboard of capitalism, someone with purchasing power (or the potential, for they couldn’t know then that I was an impecunious student) to be courted and wooed until I became a commodity like the ones they were trying to sell me.
Then I moved to the Midwest, the heartland of America they said, and how much more acculturation does one need than to walk into a field of corn on a hot summer day and hear it grow—you can, you know, even if it just means that the crackle in your ears is corn popping in the heat.
I did not really give the idea much thought for several years, although I often fielded crass comments from people who, in response to some mild altercation or other, would say sarcastically to me, “Welcome to America,” or, on more than a couple of occasions, “Why did you come here?” Or “Why don’t you go back?” These, I reasoned, were ignorant remarks uncharacteristic of the feelings of most Americans; certainly, I had many friends whose affections more than offset the sentiments of a few idiots.
Since 9/11, however, the question of identity has loomed larger in my consciousness. Every time I travel, particularly abroad but also domestically, I am forced to ponder the implications of my sojourn here—can I still call it a sojourn after almost thirty years? Is there some part of me that continues to think of myself as a visitor who has outstayed his welcome? Where does that feeling begin and what keeps it alive? And how much of that is of my own doing, a refusal to claim full membership in the clan either from a need to preserve something essential within me or because of a reluctance to think of myself as part of a herd?
Every year I visit family and friends from India who reside in Canada. They live different lifestyles from mine—I don’t think in all the years I have traveled there that I’ve met many white Canadians at the homes of my friends. There’s a huge Indian population in the conurbation of greater Toronto; friends and neighbors from Bombay live in close proximity to one another, having picked up where they left off in the old country, creating enclaves within the variegated communities of modern Canada; socializing among themselves, drawing comfort from familiar faces, food, and traditions. I refuse to be judgmental about their decisions for they live happy lives and are making significant contributions to their society. It was not, however, the life I wanted.
I came here via the Middle East for the promise of America, searching (although I did not know it at the time) for a diverse community to enrich the international experience I had discovered in Arabia. I believed I would find old and new cultural threads to weave into a coat of many colors. This was, after all, a nation of the most speckled populations anywhere in the world, particularly in its cities. My first love was theatre (although I am not defined by it) and I came here in quest of a global stage which would depict the vitality at the heart of this nation. Theatre has always been for me a way of knowing about the world, a vehicle to understand and participate in universal cultures. Perhaps that’s why I never wanted to be a professional actor or director, preferring instead to leave open doors to different possibilities; maybe that’s why I stumbled into teaching at a university, for I relish being surrounded everyday by smart people from different disciplines, each with his or her unique way of viewing the world and me. And from all of them I can reconstruct my identity. We are mirrors for those who encircle us, exchanging bits and pieces of one another in constant renewals of ourselves, renegotiating old beliefs, discovering new traditions, and reflecting each other like dancers in constant flux.
This was the America I sought, which isn’t easy to find, for it lurks beneath the surface, emerging sporadically to tease me into believing that someday that promise will be fulfilled. Perhaps my disenchantment springs from my lack of understanding of the complexity of this great adventure. As we “slouch towards Bethlehem to be born,” stumbling along the way, “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” perhaps it is precisely this faltering that stitches together the multicolored coat, for it forces us into tangential directions in search of new materials in the web of social fabrics. The Journey is everything. Theatre teaches me that the struggle is all—at the end of the play there may be Death or a Celebration, stark destruction or Bacchanalian revelry, but the payoff matters far less than the odyssey to get there. Will the so-called Promise of America ever be fulfilled? Probably not. And, frankly, I don’t know any more what that Promise really is. I do know that my life here is multifaceted—angst-ridden and ecstatic, frustratingly satisfying, littered with unfulfilled dreams that have nonetheless never stopped me from dreaming, yet glittering with so many dreams come true. Will I live out my life here? I don’t know. I never thought I would live here in the first place! I stumbled into it, as I have stumbled into every corner of my life…South America beckons…but who really knows? Besides, that sounds too much like a goal…and I have never really had a goal! Anyway, Liesl and Kieran have me ensorcelled for now!
What does it really mean to be Americanized? I live a middle-class “American lifestyle,” which under scrutiny turns out to be not much different from the lifestyles of countless middle-class folk around the world (give or take a shopping mall), foisting Indian curries on my friends, traveling across the world from time to time to avoid, I think, the isolation that sometimes comes with being here and to retain my global citizenship, seeking whenever possible the world at my doorstep (for there’s always someone from some far corner of the globe who travels here), screaming at insane politicians on TV or at rival sports teams (does it say something about my refusal to join the gang that I live in Illinois yet my favorite sports teams are the LA Lakers, the SF Forty-niners, and the Atlanta Braves?)…we’re all pursuing Happiness, with variations on that general theme.
I don’t have to be White to be an American (it’s a notion difficult to shed), even though parts of me strain to retain their foreignness, perhaps because in them lies the possibility of my uniqueness…but the larger issue is that Indian-Americans and Chinese-Americans and Latino-Americans, etc. are also just Americans, especially African-Americans! Eventually that will emerge as a greater truth than it appears today. Which leads me to the great question: Am I becoming Americanized or is America becoming “Kimized?” If you’ll forgive the inherent arrogance in that question for a moment, consider this: Do I not shape my corner of this society as much as it shapes me? As do all of us? Is that not the real truth ignored by politicians who trumpet America as a monolithic, immutable entity created 200 years ago to bend future immigrants to “its” (meaning “their”) will? Whether we like it or not, we live in a capricious country, constantly re-ordered by those who arrive at its shores. And that has led to the globalization of America, as a nation is forced to shed old notions of individual nationality to become part of an international community. My America is endlessly fascinating, replete with flamboyant people from everywhere, particularly those who arrived here “illegally” with songs in their hearts and insouciance perched on their shoulders; theirs are stories I want to hear because their journeys mirror mine in so many ways and they, as much as anyone, will transform this society over the next half century.
As I emerge from the liminal spaces between cultures to confront the monsters lying in wait for me, I am faced with this burning question: do I slay the Jabberwock or do I follow it into the tulgey wood? Undoubtedly the latter, he chortles in his glee, for there the new adventure lies. That’s the difference-making road! Callooh! Callay!!