Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Essays

Unbecoming American

I lived in a world where we could all be American. But that may no longer be the case.

Johann N. Neem

An American flag installation at the Immigration Museum, Ellis Island, New York; Kris Legg/Alamy Stock Photo.

I arrived—as we all do—in the midst of history. I was not yet three, and my parents had migrated to San Francisco from Mumbai to start a new life. They had been sponsored by my dad’s sister, whose husband, an engineer, had come over to work for Bechtel. We were, in other words, part of the first wave of immigrants to crash into a changing America in the wake of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Our arrival—among those of the numbers of Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans who came to the country—was largely unexpected. It was not what most Americans had anticipated when the law was passed during the civil rights era. But it was what brought me here, to a new country.

Mine was an American childhood. We were middle class and lived on a cul-de-sac whose residents were diverse in many of the usual American ways. There were Japanese-Americans and Catholics and Protestants. There were people without college degrees, and others with graduate degrees. There were Republicans and Democrats. There were immigrants from Germany, and of course we were from India. But most of us kids went to public school together, and our parents would take turns carpooling us. Gathering on the court, we rode bikes, played football on our muddy lawn (I was never much good at sports), and pretended to be motorcycle officers Ponch and Jon from the TV series CHiPs. Together, we made up games and celebrated birthdays. We grew up knowing about our differences but caring about what we shared. What bound us together was America, although I’m not sure I would have been able to say that. Perhaps I didn’t have to.

I imagined that I could become anybody. I had no awareness then that this belief was the result of more than two centuries of activism on the part of African Americans, feminists, and their allies to earn equality within the American nation-state. It was California. The American Dream was alive. Of course, that dream had been deferred for so many Americans for too long. But after 1965, it was hoped, those obstacles would be behind us. Immigrants would be welcome. African Americans would be equal. And despite the thus-far unsuccessful effort to enact the Equal Rights Amendment, I grew up in a world that took for granted that women too could be whomever they wanted to be.

There was a kind of amnesia. Maybe that’s not the right word. We were new. So maybe it was that I just didn’t know the history, and my parents had experienced a different history. Whatever it was, America was, for us, a blank slate. But it was not fully blank. It had rituals and traditions for us to learn, such as giving gifts and spending time with family and friends on Christmas or having barbecues on the Fourth of July. We gathered with neighbors to hunt Easter eggs. It had norms, like saying “thank you” for any kind of service, a sign of the respect each American owed fellow Americans for their contributions to society. It had a creed, too—that the United States promised all people a better, freer, more prosperous life.

No doubt, my parents sometimes faced challenges and encountered prejudice. For all that I shared with my neighbors and schoolmates, my family was also Indian American. I grew up surrounded by family friends who were immigrants like us. That was fine too. In America, my Indianness was part of a pluralistic civil society and market in which ethnic and religious groups could sustain their beliefs and folkways. Growing up, I experienced no tension between going to Berkeley for masala dosas in restaurants full of immigrants (and a few hippies), and learning in school about my Pilgrim forebears. Nor was I told that my recent arrival in America exempted me from responsibility for the evils of slavery and racism. As part of the imagined community of the nation, I understood that the past was also a shared burden.

Most of us have multiple communities to which we belong—and which make claims on us—and it is the relations between these sources of our identity that make us who we are. It is the tensions between some of these obligations, furthermore, that enable invaluable self-criticism. As the political theorist Michael Walzer has written, a self whose identity is made up of only one source is shallow and totalizing.11xMichael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994). What makes our differences—our pluralism—sustainable is that one of the communities that define us—America—is shared by most of us. We are many, but also one. This was the ideal of the so-called hyphenated American. All Americans, native born or immigrant, had their particular ethnic and religious identities, but we shared a common American-ness.

As a child, I thought that to be American was to believe in individuality, to support pluralism and equality, and also to celebrate common holidays and eat common foods, such as the oozy grilled cheeses and bean burritos that the school cafeteria dished up for us, or the sloppy joes and tacos that my mom learned to cook (even though my favorite food remained dahl and rice). On Halloween, it meant carving jack-o-lanterns and, in the evening, heading out with friends for trick-or-treating. On Thanksgiving, it meant gathering with other immigrant family and friends to eat turkey and express gratitude. Being American meant that during the Christmas season, we kids would live in anticipation, poring through the toy section of the Sears catalog. On the Fourth of July, we’d watch fireworks. At school, we said the Pledge of Allegiance.

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