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  • Divya Singh

What does it mean to be an American?

When one asks the question, “What does it mean to be an American,” one will immediately think of the obvious: freedom. But like everywhere else, we often fall short of that idea. Some people have pledged to take America back to a time before immigrants, and their definition of what it means to be an “American: is narrow, and exclusive of what makes up America. In reality, America is a melting pot, where diverse cultures and ethnicities come together to form our Nation. Being an American symbolizes red, white, blue, and free... It does not matter what language you speak, or if you’re born in America, you are STILL American. No after what you look like, identity as, no matter what. However, even though we as people make up America itself, being an American also allows you to retain the identity of the nation. There are different races, cultures, people, etc… Everyone has a unique experience, something that differentiates you from the crowd.

For reference, I am the daughter of two immigrants from India. We started in a tiny house in New York that was falling apart from the mere sight of it, so I was aware that we were not as “well off” as many of my classmates were in elementary school. For reference, I attend a school in a wealthy neighborhood, where owning a Porsche was common practice. The community I lived in was part of the immigrant community, so I never felt any pressure to “keep up with the so-called Kardashians” of my society. It was never explicitly stated to us as kids, but looking back, it is evident that my dad as the breadwinner of my family had the goal of advancing his career to make the kind of money doctors can make in the US. I had some class consciousness growing up; I was aware that we were not particularly “rich.” I got very used to hearing “no”: no to the Pokemon cards, a definitive no to shopping, and “absolutely not” to most fancy American food. As I got older, however, we moved to a house that seemed like it came out of MTV Cribs. This house, in a way, became a long-term indicator of middle-class comfort for us. Gone was hearing “no,” and now we got to eat out at restaurants more regularly. That was unheard of for our family for many years, but it morphed into a treat and then a natural cost to account for whenever we were not at home. What used to be a major restriction and stressor is now relief and joy. I don’t think we ever felt like “we made it” until we became financially secure. It took a while, but our “American dream” did come true. It took almost two decades of stress and anxiety, something that no born American has to think about. You could definitely argue that we followed the American dream to a T, just by looking at how our spending habits changed over time. We went from a used car to a nicer car to several cars; from a bug-crawling house to a mansion. Rather than buying into the American dream wholesale, however, I think we were just following the path parallel to the American dream that many Asians who aspire to become rich have internalized: Study and/or work hard so you can get out at all costs.

That mentality is not unique to immigrants alone, but it is distinct to us in that “getting out” is what most Americans would associate with a successful middle-class life. Many would agree, that both my parents’ age and my own, are happy to be “out” in any way, shape, or form. The assumption is that whatever is “out there” (Western Europe and North America) is automatically better than what is “in here” (India). There is truth to this, of course, but as an idea, it can end up being as hollow as the American dream.

Something I have to remind myself a lot — because no discussion of the American middle class seems to say so — is that no one’s journey to the middle class is guaranteed or even at all certain. I do not speak for the entire middle class but as a tiny flicker of it. Immigrant stories such as mine show that we have more in common with one another than this “facade” of separation we choose to believe. We all want safety, freedom, and opportunity. We want to honor our cultures, but we also want to become American. Xenophobia is not only about immigrants, but it is also about who has the power to define what it means to be an American, and why specific people only seem to reap the benefits of having that “American citizenship.”

If we have learned anything from these past few years, then we all know that we can no longer function the way society has been: divided. The basis of this country started with unification: colonists wanted to break from New England, and with the power of the majority, they were able to fight for their rights. We are and have always been, dependent on each other. Both “sides” of the world are dependent upon one another: Democrats and Republicans, rich and the poor, and the North and the South. But this is what balances us out. The ability to have an opinion, and to have the option of freedom is truly what defines America, and what it means to be American. Sure, one can name a million adjectives to describe what it means to be an American: Individualism, Equality, Tolerance, and the list goes on. But what makes up America is the people in it. If we are to survive and thrive, then we, as humans, need to commit ourselves to build a better future for generations to come-it is not about “us” versus “them,” but it is “we the people.”

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