This, My Friends, is America

By Samir Shukla

It's late September in 1974. A skinny, wide-eyed 11-year-old, a fresh immigrant, is shuffling down the streets of Queens in NYC, trying to make sense of the Americans. A cool breeze swirls in between the buildings adding an air of newness to the surroundings after a long hot summer spent in India, in anticipation of arriving in New York City, in America.

The mostly flat landscape and cacophony of Amdavad city in India transformed into the stacked streets of New York, the tall buildings' tops swallowed by the clouds. The change was swift, as if like a dream. The kid rubbing his eyes in disbelief, one day nestled among family in India and the next day, after couple of long flights, tossed among strangers, the Americans. All sorts of people and modes of dress and languages crisscrossed each other around those streets in Jackson Heights, in Queens, in New York, in America.

Some were soon-to-be Americans, newly arrived like me, the 11-year-old, others sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of those who arrived years or decades earlier. They were Americans or would one day become Americans. In trying to make sense of what an American is, and what America is, I strolled further down American streets on that day, in the week that followed, the month that followed, in the years and decades that followed.

This journey of discovery and opportunity, my friends, is America.

Year after year, a sense of Americanness dripped into to me like a warm summer drizzle, absorbed into my being, until one fine day when I felt myself an American joyfully intertwined with an Indian. It's a duality shared by millions of other Americans, which in their case could be with any other country in the world. America has welcomed all. A confident American feels no separation from his origins while being true to his acquired Americanness.

This steady state of mind, my friends, is America.

The music, the traditions, the Americanized slang, the freewheeling individualities, the whack of a bat against a baseball on a hot summer afternoon, and, yeah, that sweet apple pie are just some bits of Americanness that I cherish. I breathe them every day and those feelings of slowly becoming American that I felt in the first years of arriving here are still hot to the touch.

This is not a rubber stamp of love. The idea of America is always evolving and includes some horrendous things in her past. Some are obvious. Slavery. Nearly 150 years after independence before women are allowed to vote. Degradation of Native Americans and their lands. A couple of devastating wars instigated by misguided or lying politicians. Others are subtler, the occasional putdowns I experienced as a brown kid, but America is always fast to learn and eager to evolve. Become better. Social change comes quicker in America than any other part of the world. Grudgingly, sometimes, but sure as heck. It is this idea of America, always seeking to better itself, that is worth singing about. I am of the firm belief if America had not happened, the world would likely be a more fractured and darker place.

This acceptance of darker pasts while working for brighter futures, my friends, is America.

I share my birth month with America's. There was even a time in my youth I wished I was born a week earlier so I could have shared the same birthday as America. A Yankee Doodle Desi Doodle dandy, if you will. I love aging in America as much as aging with America, because I love the possible, no matter what the age, and America is always open to the possible.

American politics will sway left and right and in the middle and over the top, as does Indian politics. They always have. Red is red and blue is blue. Green is green and Saffron is saffron. They are just colors. The commonalities are the purity of white in both countries' flags, white rays of light as I see them. The rays spotlighting two confounding, incomprehensibly diverse democracies that rest of the world tries to fathom, even emulate.

The young land of America, with its constant gaze forward, accepted and groomed an 11-year-old transplant from an ancient land. It has done same with countless others, folks from lands scattered across the globe.

This, my friends, is America.