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Where do you come from?

| Tuesday, March 15, 2016

It is a truth universally acknowledged not only that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, but also that the United States of America is the melting pot of the world. 

But has anyone heard of the tossed salad metaphor? 

America as a tossed salad examines America as a place where many different cultures live together, but are not melted into each other. Worlds collide but do not lose the parts that are integral to their being. We live next to each other, but not necessarily as one.

This is becoming clearer as we become a more diverse country. As we encounter different religious traditions, different cultural traditions, we have to learn to understand. It means we have people like my sisters and I, third-culture kids, who have grown up in one place, with the values of another and trying to understand how both can operate under the same circumstances. 

I am an immigrant from the United Kingdom. I speak the same language as many Americans, I have been very privileged to go to Catholic elementary and high schools (and obviously Notre Dame). I have never been afraid to walk around at night in my neighborhood, I have never been mistreated because of the color of my skin and I have not suffered in the ways that other immigrants have suffered. 

But there are differences, some subtle, some not, that mark all those whose parents hail from another country.

I remember the first day I found out I wasn’t American. I was bitterly disappointed. I had gotten into a big argument at school after my classmates found out I wasn’t born here, and therefore could not be American. I felt hurt by this. To my little second-grade mind, it did not make sense why I had to be born here to be an American. To all intents and purposes, I identified as an American. 

The idea of nationality had never crossed my mind. I had lived here since I was two and a half and whatever failings my British parents had, had not transferred to me. That night, however, my parents confirmed that I in fact was not American. And I cried.

I look back on it now, and it may have been a slight overreaction — I was a very emotional child. It is a beautiful thing to be from a different country, to have different views on the world. 

But at the same time, there is a wonderful sense of belonging to live in the country your passport is issued by. I grew up without the many cousins, aunts and uncles living nearby as my friends did. I had amazing friends, and in many ways, we were the same. But they didn’t have British parents, they didn’t say funny words, they didn’t watch Bananas in Pajamas or read Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. 

A simple piece of paper was all it took for me to feel different. 

This might seem foolish. This might seem ridiculous to the many people who have lived in this country for so long. But think about it. Your nationality has never been questioned. You have never been asked why your British father is working for an American company at customs. Your right to be here has never been asked of you.

Have I gotten used to being English in America? Absolutely. I love America. I’m probably more supportive of America than a lot of my American friends. Part of it may be because I’m an idealist, but also because I have seen the way that America has changed a lot since I was little. But I’m still not American. My little green card still reminds me every day that I’m not.

Maybe one day I will become an American (I have one friend who made a bargain with me for my citizenship, we’ll see if she holds her end up). 

But I still question whether I feel American. And I think I would belittle the citizenship process, if I just chose to be American because I could be. 

The question, “Where are you from?” still bugs me a little. I prefer, “Where do you live?” My parents think we are too American. I still feel too English. 

The whole point is that we all came from different places. We all arrived in this great country differently, and whether we are the tomatoes, the lettuce or the cucumber, we all have a place here. Finding that place is difficult, and in the current recent election, it’s making it more and more difficult for immigrants to feel included.

If I felt difficulty fitting in, for silly reasons, then other immigrants, who face real difficulties, must feel like complete outsiders.

We’re all different and that’s great. That’s what makes America so beautiful. It’s part of the reason that people come to this country, because you don’t have to be from here to be American. 

You can become American. In a way that I think is the best part of this place.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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