I became a U.S. Citizen today. There were 507 others with me this morning at a convention center in Dallas, Texas. They came from 66 different countries; each with their own stories, here's a slice of mine.
I immigrated here in 1981 – and have had the right to become a citizen for more than 20 years, but I've struggled with the concepts of citizenship and identity; cultural and political, so taking today's oath was a long time coming.
Even through the application process I was unsure whether or not shifting allegiances from my country of birth was right for me. I downloaded the forms this January, stared at them all of February, filled them out in March, and after a long 20 minutes outside a mailbox in April, I finally dropped them in.
India has given me so much, even though I have lived elsewhere for the majority of my life. Somewhere between those first formative years growing up in Bombay (back then it was not yet Mumbai) or the summers spent in the rural southern portions of the country, somewhere between the temples I worshipped in, the languages that came out of my mouth or the food that went into it, it was home. It grounded me. Each time I take a trip back to visit my parents now, I find the idea of moving back permanently very difficult to imagine, but there is an inexplicable comfort I feel when I'm there.
The United States has given me a tremendous amount as well. You could say my citizenship began somewhere on my road to becoming an Eagle Scout. I gained an early appreciation for the great outdoors and the remarkable access to it that this country offered. If all the patriotic rituals associated with Boy Scouts didn't trigger an impulse in me to become a citizen, I figured not much would.
Like most immigrant children who rediscover their roots, I gained a new found admiration for my Indian heritage through my college years. I had almost all the same rights as a citizen; I paid taxes, was earning credit toward my Social Security checks, but without a couple of important responsibilities (jury duty / voting), the tradeoff didn't seem to be worth the hassle.
The most I've learned about this country and what it means to be an American has been through this craft I've been fortunate enough to practice for a dozen years or so. For work, I've lived in Washington, North Carolina, California, New York, and now Texas. According to the map on my Facebook page, there are probably a half-dozen or so states that I have yet to visit. In the past year and a half or so for CBS, I've been hurled into one disaster aftermath after another, and though it might sound like a political cliché, that is really the easiest place to see the best of America. You don't see it when politicians swoop in for a photo-opportunity; it happens quietly.
The American spirit is in the pastor I met near Damascus, Ark., who, when he saw a tornado, instead of hunkering down, rushed out to warn the construction workers building his church who he knew had no radio. They huddled together inside a cement cellar as the twister tore through in seconds what that community had taken so long to build. Like the entire town of Greensburg, Kansas, the community in Arkansas, will pick itself up, dust itself off and build again. It is in the optimism of the teachers throughout New Orleans who are putting their money where the rest of the country's idealistic mouths are. They are on the front lines working brutally long days for relatively little pay, and often times are part of the only stability in the lives of so many children who have been failed by our education system.
To some extent it is that spirit of not just wanting something better, but willingness to take a risk and work at it that brought my parents and most immigrants here. It wasn't easy on my parents. We weren't rich in India, and we were far less so here. But like most good parents, they never let me want for anything. My dad, who used to work in sales with the potential for upward mobility in India, found a job as a paper-pusher in the city of Seattle. He worked for the stability of health care for his family and did what he could to cling onto it. My mom, who had worked as a stenographer (a fairly white-collar job), often worked at least two jobs at a time; as a cashier at a Kmart, a waitress at an Indian restaurant or as a nurse's assistant. Service jobs are considered lower echelon back in the old country, but my mom did what she had to do and never was there a night that there wasn't a home cooked meal for me.
They sacrificed so much for me, and my annual visits and financial assistance don't feel like thanks enough. Almost every immigrant in that convention hall this morning can probably tell you how they help support family back home, how they help relatives with unexpected medical expenses, and put children through school. While immigrants may have traded the warmth of an extended family for the independence of a nuclear one, the "family" is never too far away when needs arise and you are earning in dollars.
It took me a long time to realize that the nuclear family structure of America is only as dominant as I let it be. Being an only child, I have begun to build a large family of dear friends whom I consider as close as siblings. Their children treat me like the uncle that brings candy and spoils their appetite before dinner, and if a story takes me within 50 miles, I drop in unannounced on friends like only family can. They are of several races, and creeds and part of the fabric of a different America than the images of the American ideal exported decades ago.
America & The World
Perhaps the most successful export of which there is an enormous trade imbalance is the American definition of cultural and personal success. I'm now seeing the challenges of childhood obesity and diabetes hit India as they start shifting to preservative laden foods from supermarkets instead of the organic produce they always had. The world will face environmental challenges as Chinese and Indian citizens equate vehicle ownership with middle-class status, because parts of their great Chinese or great Indian dreams include parts of the American dream we've helped sell. How do I, as an American, tell my Indian friends that they should defer their dreams to help save the world, when my new country is a disproportionate consumer of the world's resources per capita?
Some of my friends overseas have already been asking me whether I'm in my right mind to become a citizen considering how the international perception of the United States has changed for the worse in the last few years. With those who are investment focused, I reply that when a stock is battered is the time to buy, especially if you believe the momentum is temporary and you are in it for the long haul. It is also the fact that here, not only can I see the problems, but I am free to speak my mind about them, and engage in doing something about them.
About a year ago, I even filed a Freedom of Information Act request on myself to see part of the travel information the government had on me. While the journalist in me was disappointed in the redacted sections, and frustrated at how long the reply took, the citizen-to-be was amazed that there could be such a country where such a petition could even be filed, much less answered.
One thing that I noticed in my fellow immigrants this morning, from the Albanian to the Zimbabwean, from the Kosovar to the Kenyan, was a sense of potential. Even though the act itself is no more than raising your right hand and making a pledge to a new country, there is the sense of hope that comes with turning over a new leaf. I've always believed that either you are part of the solution or you are a part of the problem. There are enough solutions to work on in America, and I'm willing, as they say during Texas Hold'em poker, to go all-in.