A Real American
A Real American
I was eight years old when I first set foot on American soil. I remember the airport in the dead of winter. I remember women and children, some of them barefoot, waiting for… something, sitting with their meager belongings on the Arrivals floor. They were probably refugees, but I don’t know.
I remember the taxi ride to my aunt’s one-bedroom apartment, where we were going to stay until we found a place of our own. I tried not to sleep because everything was so new and different, and my dad whispered excitedly that we were in America now, but the street lights looked like they were covered in cobwebs and everything was blurry as I nodded off.
I remember my first day of school. Everyone spoke English. I did not. There was no ESL class, and I tried to understand as much as I could, but I knew about five English words. I was discouraged because very few kids would play with me, but my dad said that we were in America now and that things would improve for us very soon.
I also remember the first time I entered a supermarket and how amazed I was at its size! There were no empty shelves. No rationing. We could buy what we wanted as long as we had the money.
I ate a lot of chicken, rice, and potatoes back then. Sometimes we had raisins as a treat. My mom splurged on cereal every so often, because I’d never tasted it before. I didn’t even taste potato chips until I was 10 years old or so. We couldn’t afford much back then, but my dad was thrilled that we were in America, because we had all those choices!
Yeah, our furniture, bed sheets, and clothing came from other people’s trash, and so did my toys. My dad would go out at night and find stuff on the neighborhood curbs to bring home. Sometimes it was an old piece of furniture, once it was an old black and white TV that was about the size of the laptop I have now, and sometimes it was a toy for me. But my dad – an engineer with two Masters degrees – wasn’t ashamed to be picking through items others discarded. He fixed them, so we had a place to sit and a TV to watch, and we had blankets to sleep under, so all was good. And he was thrilled, because we were in America, and we had more than we ever had in the country of my birth.
And no – we never got welfare. We never sponged off the US taxpayers. This was a matter of pride for my parents. They wanted to make it on their own.
I was 11 when my parents bought their first house – a duplex in a suburb. They both learned enough English to get engineering jobs and saved enough for a down payment. My dad was SO proud, because the house was his, and because he bought it with his own earnings and no one’s help.
I was around 12 years old when I did something stupid – a friend and I got caught shoplifting from a local department store. It wasn’t because I was lacking in anything, but because I wanted to know what it felt like to wear something frivolous for once in my life, and my parents were still scrimping and saving, so there were no silly extras like a microwave or a VCR or cable.
They called our parents to take us home, and after a few hours of ostensibly thinking about what he was going to say to me, my dad sat me down and told me that I had stained the family name, that the entire time we were in the US, he had struggled for his honor to show that we deserved to be in this country that gave us so many opportunities, and that the reason we never accepted government assistance was because we needed to earn the freedom America offered. I had sullied that, and he was ashamed.
I will never forget that day.
I was 16 when my parents took me to a courthouse to take my citizenship oath. I remember coming home, feeling different – feeling special somehow, because I was an American.
I was 22 when I picked up the phone and called my parents from MEPS to tell them that I had enlisted in the Army. They were shocked, because I had graduated from one of America’s top universities, and they expected either grad school or a job with some top financial investment firm. I told them this was what I always intended to do, because I was grateful to America for giving me that choice and the opportunities I never had “over there.”
I was 23 when I stepped off the bus at my basic training battalion after five days at Ft. Jackson reception. “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood was playing on a loudspeaker, Drill Sergeants were running around screaming in our faces, and I teared up – not because I was scared, but because I loved every minute of it. Not once did I question my decision to enlist. I knew why I was there.
I was 30 when the planes hit the towers. I cried along with everyone else and worried about my friends who worked at the Pentagon. A while later, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I reenlisted after a break in service. I’ve been working in a national security capacity ever since. I never regretted this choice. Ever. I know why I’m here.
I was 40-something when several frothing, boorish, racist swine followers of a fairly well known Internet “personality,” writer, and publisher told me I wasn’t a “real” American, because I could never understand our values, because I was a foreigner. And claiming to be such merely because I believed in American values was folly, according to their worldview.
America is not just a country with borders. America is an ideal. America is what other nations – despite their loud protestations – strive to be. America is principle, pride, independence, opportunity, achievement, and strength of character. Allowing immigrants to enter, assimilate, work, and contribute to our society does not weaken us. On the contrary, it gives us the advantage of experiences that other – more monochromatic – nations may not have. It gives us strength, because these immigrants have sometimes endured unimaginable horrors and have come out better on the other side, and they are willing to use that strength and perseverance to make this nation and our society better and more powerful. These people, who abandon everything they know to start from scratch, have a much deeper appreciation for America than many who were privileged enough to have been born and raised here, and who have never known empty store shelves, who have always had indoor plumbing, and who have never felt neither persecution based on their skin color or faith, nor hungry bellies. These people have a deep appreciation for the concept of liberty, because they have experienced life without freedoms, without opportunities, and without the ability to achieve.
These are people who waded through months and sometimes of years of bureaucratic red tape to be allowed to legally enter the Promised Land. They knew it was worth it.
Some of them are military vets who put their lives on the line and pledged their sacred honor to defend this nation – not for any financial or educational benefits, but because they were so grateful to be here.
These people are real Americans. I am a real American.
And every time the national anthem plays, I tear up with pride for my nation.
Happy Independence Day.