The Immigration Tweet
The Twitter feed showed, “President Trump plans to sign an executive order terminating birthright citizenship.” This simple statement in less than 140 characters, seeming to eviscerate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by an executive order struck the rational and legal part of my mind as preposterous. As a lawyer, I knew this could not happen. But there is a part of me, the seven year old girl who came to Massachusetts when I my parents emigrated here so that my dad could lecture at Harvard that felt self-conscious.
America is my home as much as anything can be but like many first generation immigrants, I am reminded at times by people who have come here before that I am less American than they are. At times, in reading things, you feel unwanted. This is an ongoing feeling even though the rational part of you knows there is no welcoming party for any immigrant and you must make yourself as at home as you choose to.
But assimilation into a foreign country is a process with a lot of give and take. The fear of losing some part of you and being shameful as a result was inculcated in me as a child. To a child, the fear of losing a transported culture is strange. It is like being asked to urgently remember seeing a polar bear at the zoo. I remember trying but not fully understanding why. What was the purpose? Who was this unseen audience that attended so many conversations my parents had, that was in our home and even dictated my behavior and dress?
I was born of mixed parentage and raised in two religions. It was only after I became thirty-four years old that I realized I was never going to fit in anywhere completely. A friend at The University of Chicago from Austria affectionately called me café au lait, a brown girl who was not too brown at all but not white either. Mixed. My mother warned me not to spend too much time in the sun or I would be discriminated against. As if the amount of pigment one has is determinative of one’s worth. In southeast Asia though, it is. Perhaps it is everywhere and it is one of those things that is though unspoken. I put my phone down and flicked out of Twitter.
Being an immigrant affects your outlook on many things and in an ongoing way- it forces a choosing between disparate worlds and it is within this calculus that another third identity, that of being a first generation immigrant is born. Adding to this is the ceaseless dialogue of my parents about their own struggles and the homes they were raised- affecting their decisions and thoughts as adults and forming the ever present ghosts in our living room. Or my graceful grandmother asking me to remember that my family had a lineage that was 1400 years old. And above all my parents’ unrelenting need to remember and venerate, places and cultures that are not the place we are in now.
Have often wondered what is the quintessence of a person? Are we just cumulative data output from the past? Why must a culture I will never live in be carried on anyway? It is not as if I fit in very well in Ceylon now either. By contrast, the culture of valuing the individual and individualism is American- and it is grand.
My last memory of leaving Ceylon when I was seven was my grandfather, a prominent lawyer and imposing figure to all around him, kneeling down and telling me that I must never forget him because I would not see him again. I remember defiantly telling him not to be silly that I would see him again. Even at seven, I liked to argue. What did he know? Though he was right. I often wondered why he wanted me to remember him. That was the last conversation we would have. My grandfather who was jailed alone in a cell as a political prisoner for opposing British rule, would have his life saved by Lord Mountbatten. All the rest of his contemporaries gave in and assimilated to their masters, even changing their religions and manner of speech, trying to be less native. He would not. Yet he also loved the English and was proud when his son went to Oxford. But he had also not fit in, in his own land, and decided to stay for years in a prison cell instead.
My grandfather would have expected me to read that Tweet defiantly and remember, it does not matter how little I will ever fit in, my duty would be to fight and protect the Constitution of a land that is more my home than any other place would ever be and it is where as an adult I fit in the most of all in my way of fitting in anyway. And this is fine as it must have been for so many first generation immigrants before.