Every four years, the general election brings with it a reminder that I am an American first and an immigrant second. For us naturalized citizens, each presidential contest marks the passage of time, roots us that much deeper into Americana. Each election season, I accumulate more of my personal history, played out, not against the familiar green-and-orange-and white of the Indian tricolor, but against the blue and red and white of the star spangled banner. Most of us are still not sure if the American national anthem is “God Bless America” or “The Star Spangled Banner,” but each one of us can vividly recall a time and place when our first American president was announced.
For me, it was Jimmy Carter. Sitting in my poky room in the International House at U.C. Berkeley, I listened to songs by Abba and Linda Ronstadt, interspersed with the babble of exit polls suggesting that an overwhelming majority of people had voted against Ford because he had pardoned Nixon.
I remember too, each of the presidential debates since I first arrived on these shores. I can recall the ad-libs and the asides, the one-liners and the jokes, not because they were funny, but because, most of the time, I didn’t get them; after all I had not been here during Chappaquiddick and Kent State, during Cuban missiles, and Watergate.
But there was another reason I found the debates mystifying; they were so parochial that I wondered if they were happening in the same America that I had watched from afar. Back in India, I had known the U.S. as a superpower, a world leader, and a trendsetter. I used to think of it as a nation whose slightest whims and fancies could tip the world’s balance of power this way or that. So I had imagined the U.S. elections to be about such global issues as the role of its military bases around the world, the aggression of India by China, the military dictatorship of Pakistan, the role of the U.N.
Alas, I was chagrined to discover that American presidential contests turned on obscure topics like the teaching of evolution in schools, abortion, and school prayer; topics about which even the populace of a “third world” country like India felt relatively unambiguous. Watching the debates, America seemed like a tiny Christian nation, somewhere at the end of the world, whose homogeneous population had very little interaction with, or influence over, the rest of the globe.
To us immigrants who came from a colonial world with shared histories going back a couple of centuries, the isolation of America was unbelievable. And yet, for those of us raised under the parliamentary system, in an age without television, in lands where political campaigns were waged with bullhorns atop trucks, the immediacy of the American political system was enticing. In India, political agendas of candidates ran to three word slogans, not to issue papers of hundreds of pages. The sense of entitlement and inclusiveness that the American democracy gave its citizens we found so very invigorating.
But contradictions abounded. A nation which boasted of inventing most of the technological advances of the 20th century, and which used a computerized ballot for voting often succeeded in attracting only half of its citizens to the polling places.
So, even after I began to vote, the sense of belonging escaped me. It was as if I was an usurper, a foreigner forever. I voted but I didn’t know the intricacies of the new political system I adhered to. A little phrase like filibuster could throw me off.
It was not until I began to raise my children in this country that I began to feel a sense of comfort with the nation whose citizen I had become. Most of us immigrants feel a sense of belonging to America once politics becomes interwoven with our family histories; when George Bush’s dislike of broccoli, Clinton’s love of McDonalds, Chelsea Clinton’s braces, become the memories we share with our children. It is through our children too that we learn about the Electoral College, the founding fathers, the constitutional amendments.
I can recall the moment I became a true American. It was when my preschool son began to teach me the words to the pledge of allegiance.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.