Over the weekend I had a very visceral reaction to a post on Facebook. Now, I know Facebook is the LAST place anyone should go to hang out right now, especially given the current political climate, but for some reason I haven’t learned my lesson. And I figured I had seen pretty much everything there is to see that gets me angry. But this particular post really got to me. It was a quote from Teddy Roosevelt someone had shared that pretty much said, and I’m summarizing here, that immigrants were only welcome into the United States if they assimilated.
I’ve talked about my struggle with my cultural identity on here before, so it’s not all that surprising that this quote would rub me the wrong way, but given what’s happening in Texas with the concentration camps (let’s be real, that’s what they are), it hit me square in the chest and left me gasping for air. I remember my heart racing, hands shaking, and the tears welling my eyes. I was angry and hurt and ready for a fight. After talking it out with my husband and friends, I unfriended the person because I realized I didn’t need someone who believes that in my life. However, that didn’t erase the emotional war that raged inside of me that night and continues to do so.
I am the immigrant that Teddy Roosevelt described in his quote. The one that he said is welcome into this country. Why? Because I assimilated. I left behind my culture. I changed and forced myself to fit into a neat little box labeled “American” and it haunts me to this day. I struggle with this definition constantly. I am Indian. I am American. I am both of these things yet neither of these things. I know the Pledge of Allegiance and the words to the National Anthem but I can barely say “How was your day?” in Hindi. I know I’m not alone in this, in fact this is a prevailing issue among immigrants. Yet, we all feel alone. Like outcasts, floating in a sea of lost identities.
The idea of assimilation is toxic. The belief that in order to be accepted into this country you must sever a part of yourself or hide is insidious and harmful. The Statue of Liberty states:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It doesn’t end with “Buuuut only if you assimilate”. America is not a one size fits all box, no matter what certain groups try to tell you. It’s the men and women who continue to speak their native languages, who cling to their traditions and allow others to participate in them, the men and women who teach family, friends, and strangers alike the history of their people. I wish so much that I could go back and tell this to my younger self, that I could make her listen and not be afraid of holding onto the Indian part of herself. I wish immigrants today, young and old who struggle, understood this. I wish that people felt safe enough to keep their rich heritages.
The world is not perfect. I know there’s a reason why we assimilate, I’m not going to pretend like we live in a harmonious society. I myself became the Americanized version of myself in order to survive. People like to pick on our differences, use them as weapons that leave us bruised and bleeding and weak. Weapons that make us question our self worth and our place in the world. Which then leads to us morphing into something else. It’s a subtle change at first. You ask for American food to be packed in your home lunch, you stop wearing certain clothes, you start speaking differently. One step at a time you use these changes as a shield against those who would hurt you. Then, before you know it, your shield is no longer just a shield, but your identity, an unfinished one at that, and you can’t remember what it was like to be the you “before”. (And then twenty years later you go through an identity crisis and have to learn how to drop those shields and figure out who the hell you really are. Or maybe that’s just me.)
I wonder what would happen if we stopped pretending like there’s an actual definition of what it means to be an American. I don’t think the idea of assimilation is going anywhere anytime soon. I don’t have answers on how to fix this problem or how to make people more accepting of one another’s differences. All I can and will do is continue to write stories about girls and boys who are like me. Who feel lost but find their way back to who they really are. I can try to change people’s perspectives through those stories. It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s all I have at this point. Meanwhile my hope is that no one will ever share that damn quote on the internet ever again. Slim chance of that happening, but a girl can dream.