Growing up, no one said I was “American.” By extension, I didn’t consider myself “American.” I considered myself “Indian” even though I was born in Fremont, California and have lived in the United States my entire life. Well, I was “Indian-American” at best, but everyone else referred to me as “Indian” so that must be who I am, right?
All of my peers at school were children of immigrant parents from a few select Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. We were all hyphenated Americans, where the nationality before the hyphen mattered a lot more in culturally distinguishing each of us than the nationality after the hyphen.
“What language do you speak at home?”
We all had different answers. I spoke Oriya. My parents were from the state of Orissa in India. No one I knew answered English to that question.
This was definitely not the case for what I imagined to be the quintessential American family, a concept I picked up from watching my favorite Disney Channel and Nickelodeon television shows. I thought I was just “Indian” and you had to be white to be a “real American.” The Americans I saw on television never ate bhatha, dali, and bhaja for dinner.
We were never American by default. We had to prove it. We had to prove that we didn’t hate America in September of 2001 — the same time we slapped American flag stickers on every window to signal to the rest of the world that we’re not terrorists. We don’t hate this country, trust us.
“Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”
Those questions didn’t help either.
Living in the United States, surrounded by 1st and 2nd generation immigrants, I was always reminded that I had won the genetic lottery. I was born in the United States and there are so many others in the world who would kill to have this opportunity. I felt guilt. I felt indebted. I never felt as if I had a right to have the privileges I have had growing up here.
I have it better than my parents. I have it better than my grandparents. But why was I the lucky one? These questions made me question whether I deserved to be here.
Did I deserve the same rights and privileges that others in this country always felt entitled to?
I felt less American than someone whose family, whose ancestors, had been in this country for longer, for many more generations — someone who never questioned whether or not they were American. This belief that I was less American has affected the way I understand democracy and the power of my own voice in our democratic system.
I have learned about how the United States is a democracy growing up. I have learned about how every adult citizen has a right to vote and elect their representatives. I have learned about how every individual has a voice to shape their government. However, it can be difficult to believe that your voice, your vote, your thoughts, and your ideas should matter when you question whether or not you really are American; whether you deserve to be here. It is easy to think that everything you believe is less valid than the beliefs of a “real American.” It is easy to think that you don’t have as much of a right to shape the direction of our country as a “real American,” resulting in less personal democratic power and a less democratic state.