I shoplift for the first and only time when I am 7. We are in a tiny gift shop in the Al-Araimi Shopping Mall in Muscat, Oman. I’m transfixed by a plastic bin of tiny shimmering gift rosettes, hardly a few baisa each. I ask the rallying, cross-cultural cry of small children: Can I have one? Amma, used to turning down impassioned pleas for Kellogg's Corn Flakes or glittery pens, instantly says, “Don’t be silly, no.”
I pick one up, just to feel its crinkly ribbon in my palm. I look up; the shopkeeper is smiling as he watches me, the small, serious girl with her bowl cut and overalls. He winks. I take it as signal, telegraphed encouragement. He watches as I pocket the rosette.
Amma finds it while doing the laundry the next day. This precipitates a tongue-lashing worthy of the Mahabharata. Her daughter — her daughter — is a thief; this constitutes an unraveling of years of dedicated South Indian parenting, of a genetic morality coded over generations of upright living. Fat tears plop off my face. I promise from now on I would only take what had been offered to me — what was for me.
I’m 15, staying home from school, and I need something from the store. I decide that I will go by myself, cross a street for the first time by myself and not with my sweaty palm holding one of my parents’ hands. My heart is beating fast and excited, five rials in my pocket.
Al-Fair, the department store nearest my house, is near a busy road: four lanes of fast-moving traffic, no pedestrian crossing. The air blows dry and hot, the gust of an opened oven door before you put a roast in. When I’ve ventured out with Appa, he either power-walks across, or more often, cars slow for him. I step off the curb and back onto it again and again, panic fermenting within me like yeast. A car honks at me as it flips past: beep-beep. Young as I am, I know what it means. Honk as leer. In response to a girl outside, clearly an expat, uncovered, no male relative in sight. Another one: beep-beep. A male grin speeds by at 120 kilometers per hour.
I turn and run back down the sidewalk, the farthest I have ever gone by myself, back to the empty house. This is not for me.
Six months earlier, my family had learned that we’d been approved to emigrate from Oman to Toronto (which, contingent on how a job offer and resultant work visa went, could become Chicago). I’d watched Degrassi and The O.C. to learn how to be American. To be American is to be white, to have smooth, hairless skin, to look 26 while in high school, to make out and possibly even do more (!), to have conveniently absent parents who look 10 years older than you, to drink and to smoke marijuana (!), to never need to account for oneself. Why did the American cross the street? Because he damn well could.
A few months before we pack our bags to leave Oman, my mother calls me to the living room where she’s watching Condoleezza Rice being interviewed. Even though I think Bush and his cronies are awful, I have a soft spot for Condi, who comes off warm and poised and incandescently intelligent. I secretly adore the thoughtful tilt of her head, her steely straight posture, her big friendly teeth.
Amma turns off the TV. She says, eyes glinting, "I want you to know that because you're a girl and you have brown skin and you weren't born there, you will have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to get to the same place. But at least you can get to the same place. You show them that you can do anything, mollai, you hear?"
I don’t know what to make of this outburst, so I shrug and amble back to messaging my friends on the family computer: My mum is so random, yaar.
I Condoleezza Rice the shit out of college. My drive is fueled in some degree by the profound instability of my family’s visa situation, of wondering year after year if we will get to keep the lives we build. I take honors classes, organize festivals and political programming, become president of the University of Wisconsin’s student union. I learn to do the mundane things I secretly fear, like eating at a nice restaurant confidently or using dollars, dimes, and nickels with ease.
I tell my best friend about growing up not-here. I confide in him about the things I miss: Oman’s heart-stirring beauty, its moderation in embracing both modernity and tradition. The warmth and hospitality. Tang and Tarboosh shawarma. The mountains and the sea.
One day, I recount the time I tried to cross the street in my mid-teens, how I had longed to go wherever I wanted, entirely of my own devices. To be free, despite being female.
He puts his arm around my shoulder and says, “It’s like you were born American.”
I am simultaneously touched, uneasy, and irritated. I’ve lived enough places to know that believing freedom should not be the sole purview of the lucky, or happiness of the few, is not the exclusive domain of Americans. But it feels as though I am being told, "You deserve to be here." I long to make a home in this cold, wide country, in a deeper, more complicated way than I did earlier. In my late teens, I yearned to fit in. For my skin’s melanin to be diluted, for my clothes to look right, and for my voice to skate correctly across consonants and pirouette in Midwestern vowels. As I wait long years for the chance to stay in the U.S. legally and permanently, I slow-waltz into love with my new country itself, with its reckless contradictions and heady promise and tear-jerking history, for the freedoms it afforded me.
I also grow more and more proud in my Indianness. Over the years, I learn how to make vendekya poriyal, Malabar shrimp, and lemon pickle. I learn the spectacular history of my home state Kerala, in so many ways a place like no other. I feel kinship with other desi people. My accent grows warmer and rounder when I am with them. Desi. When I am with other brown Americans, I pronounce the “s” like “shh,” like a secret. It means “one from our country.”
In the early 20th century, Henry Ford sponsored citizenship and English language classes at his Detroit auto factories, which would have ground to a halt without immigrant labor. The emotional crescendo of the ceremony occurred when each immigrant, bearing the tiny flags of their countries of origin, crossed the stage toward a giant replica of a wooden kettle. Emblazoned on it was the legend “melting pot.” Emerging from the kettle, each immigrant would discard the flag of their home country, and in its place, clutch a tiny Stars and Stripes.
They had, at least ceremonially, become American.
If “ethnic” today, as prefix to “restaurants” and “language department” is code for Otherness melted down colorful like glass, made harmless and interesting, “ethnicity” retains some bite. “Ethnicity” is less neutered; it is specific in its difference and rarely consumable. It is not just white-hooded, next-level-racist Americans who perceive ethnicity as willful, threatening separateness, a lack of fidelity to a certain essentialist idea of Americanness, a gruel of Colonial British stock and the Founding Fathers.
Without public ritual or denouncing our Indianness, my family and I receive our green cards, after eight very long years of uncertainty, heartache, and frightfully expensive bureaucracy. The cards mean we can stay. We are not citizens. We join the ranks of 13 million legal permanent residents — to say nothing of additional millions of Americans: those with disabilities, those convicted of felonies in the past, and those disenfranchised by poverty in the face of increasingly and intentionally restrictive ID laws — in not being able to vote.
The year after we get our green cards, a monied, fish-faced man the color of a block of cheddar announces that he will run for president, under this central unifying message: Make America great again.
Make America great again. Means shorthand for simple, easy, mine. Means if I am white and male, to have the country be for only me again. Means why can’t I get to say the n-word? Means the factories closed and the only employers are prisons and my son’s painkiller habit has turned into an addiction to smack. Means in a world where the prior order of gender and race and sexuality is crumbling, have a patriarch reinstitute it, revive the old rules wherein the world runs in cruel symbiosis between the powerful and the disenfranchised.
Since this nation was founded, it has been party to almost constant immigration, witnessing cycles of open borders followed by parochial and nativist clamor to seal them airtight. Through it all, immigration has always taken place, because immigration has always been in America’s economic interest. The Irish miner, Jewish tailor, German farmer, Chinese railroader, Polish slaughterhouse worker, and Mexican laborer — their muscle helped power the United States’ trajectory from agrarian economy to urban, industrial powerhouse. They, much like the immigrants of today, did the jobs that native-born Americans, save for African-Americans, would not or could not do.
The nation’s powers winked at the influx of newcomers, fuel to the hungry engines of capitalist democracy, but knew they needed to be kept in line, lest they get entrenched enough to change the nation’s identity too fast or, god forbid, assume political power.
In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote apoplectically of his native Pennsylvania being overrun by Germans. “[They] are generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation ... not being used to liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it.” He raged over their refusal to learn English. Over decades, German immigrants, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren imported Christmas trees, Easter bunnies, and hot dogs to the new country. German immigrants and their descendants in Wisconsin started the country’s first kindergarten. Swaths of Americans engaged in virulently anti-German behavior. American citizens of German origin were spat on in public. Sauerkraut was christened “liberty cabbage.”
In 1885, Friedrich Drumpf left Kallstadt, Germany, for the United States. He arrived in penury and worked as a barber, saving and scrimping for over six years. Eventually he opened up a Seattle establishment that served drinks and food and advertised "rooms for ladies," a euphemism for prostitution. The Dairy Restaurant, by all accounts, became a roaring success. Drumpf voted in Washington’s first presidential election in 1892, and he became a U.S. citizen soon after.
If he arrived at on American soil today, Friedrich Drumpf, The Donald’s grandfather, would be classified an economic refugee — that is to say, the kind of immigrant his grandson stirs the masses against and would not permit to enter the United States.
The universe has a sense of humor dark as melanin itself.
I grew up in the kind of country that Donald Trump’s rhetoric and divisiveness would have America resemble. A country ruled dictatorially, with a powerful police force and little freedom of the press. A country where ethnic origin and religious affiliation determine belonging. A country where smart and ambitious young girls are not taught that the world is theirs as well, not told that the streets are theirs to cross without fear. And what a failure that is; beyond any idealism, what a waste of potential and capability. How shortsighted, to desire a return to that.
I came to this country sullen, more or less unwilling, angry about Iraq, about Afghanistan, about the entirety of the Bush years. I fell in love with America slowly, over the years, in fits and starts, the way that you can fall in love with the friend you see every day. It did not happen overnight. I saw a black man serve as president in a White House built by slaves, I wept in the Wisconsin State Capitol amidst hundreds of thousands rallying to try to save the future of unions and organized labor, and I felt moved beyond words or tears when I read Justice Kennedy’s stunning ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land.
So much of that progress, those moves toward greatness seem tenuous or fragile now. In the wake of Brexit, not to mention the rise of ethno-nationalism in other countries, I fear that we too will fail if we do not tell a more truthful history of our nation. We will fail if we don’t paint a vision of a better, brighter future that includes both the historically marginalized and the demographic of people that Trump is most likely to appeal to. We will fail if we do not offer a persuasive account of how much this country has gained through immigration, diversity, and a more equal future for more people. Love of country is beggared if you cannot bring yourself to love the people of your country in some way. To me that is what patriotism fundamentally is about: that I should love my neighbor. That my dignity is inseparable from that of those around me. That a rising tide lifts all boats.
To my fellow immigrants, to the children of immigrants: It may not always offer itself up, but this country is for you, too. We will outlast the present moment, just as we have before. Throughout its history, we have helped make America great. We deserve to be here.
To those of you who enjoy the vast and quiet privilege of suffrage in this country: Come November, I hope you vote with all the urgency in the world. I know what it is like to live a busy life, to feel uninspired by politicians, or to submit to apathy and cynicism, but right now, the stakes are so high for so many: women, low-wage workers, immigrants, those affected by the prison-industrial complex, and others. Your vote is your voice, and so many of us have been silenced. I am asking, as one of your country, that you ask and answer the question of whom America should be for. I hope you keep those who cannot in mind.
I have lived most of my life as a stranger in strange lands. But this country is different. It was not formed through a common genealogy; its people were bound to each other through fealty to a constitution, but also a creed, the powerful formulation of a Declaration that promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all. To all of us. That, and only that, has ever made America great.