Americans who look like me

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

God
is Change.”

― Octavia E. Butler

What I love about being a woman is the capacity to hold and allow for both/and.

This is how I hold an abiding affection for my country, along with a deeper sense of self as a member of the greater humanity across the globe (and space?)

I love to travel, to discover new places, and to encounter myself there. I’m equally attracted to “other.” The childhood neighbor whose mother only spoke Korean and made the best rice I’ve ever tasted. The friend across town whose family made a kind of flat bread and played a wirey kind of music that I had never heard before. The only black child in my elementary school on whom I had my first crush in the 5th grade. The junior high boy from Brazil who wore soccer jerseys to school (before soccer was a thing here) upon whom we all had a crush. The high school girls who didn’t fit in because they didn’t want to. The college classmate with the mind of a mystic. The Irish nun in a house of British priests in my semester abroad. My father’s medical colleagues from India. The friend of the family with a strong French accent.

Diversity.

My passion for it makes me well placed in this particular country I suppose, except that I’ve spent the past 25 years in the state of Vermont where most people look and sound like me.

Which may explain why I was so surprised to arrive at a naturalization ceremony on the 4th of July to find almost everyone else looking “other.”

Too many “others” at once for my comfort in fact.

“I’m afraid of a terrorist attack,” I whispered to my husband.

“That’s awful,” he said, judging me.

“I know,” I replied.

I looked nervously at the sea of unfamiliar faces, wondering what might be hidden in their hearts and minds, and how they too could be called: Americans.

These were immigrants, of course, and the majority of them were not European. Most had dark, dark skin; others wore covers over their heads.

At the height of my discomfort, a family passed by. Each dressed in patriotic stripes. The daughters carrying flags. Their faces beaming. Their skin color not mine. Were they new citizens or native, like me? Had they, like my family, come to watch the ceremony in celebration of diversity?

I watched as one person after another, unlike me, became an American, just like me, only prouder perhaps.

“What did you think?” I asked my teenage son as the ceremony came to an end, and tears trickled down my face.

“I was a little bored at first,” he said. “And then I realized how hard these people worked for something I take for granted.”

He was right. There were hugs and cheers and little arms wrapped around legs and waists, and large entourages of family members congratulating loved ones and lots of smiles and tears; and something else quite spectacular–comradie between new citizens from differing nations.

I sprung this trip on my son, first thing in the morning. I’d been searching for something to lend a sense of place on the 4th of July, beyond a cookout or a parade, something that said:

This is what it is to be American.

“I feel sad too,” he said, “They had to give up their own countries.”

“I know,” I said.

My son didn’t seem to mind how different these new Americans looked from us.

“I’m afraid of terrorism,” I added.

“That’s awful,” he said, judging me.

“I know,” I replied.

I told myself that it was more likely that a person who looked like me would be the one to shoot us all up at this particular event (or statistically in any public space.) And yet, the young man, with the dark eyes, from some country I had never been, unnerved me.

I breathed into my fear and let it move along. I’m not entitled to feeling safe by making everyone look and think and act like me.

I remember watching with pride when the Democratic National Convention highlighted the beautiful diversity of this nation in 2016.

I remember how my foreign colleagues admired how well Americans co-exist.

I recalled a trip to New York City when I was the only person speaking English without an accent in the cafe where I had breakfast.

To be honest, I’m afraid of waking up one day and finding out that I don’t belong in a place that has been my home.

As an American, I know how to lean into that fear and let it go. As a member of a wider humanity, I know I always belong.

(July 4th, 2016)

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