Jewish Journal

To Become American

by Gina Nahai

Posted on Oct. 4, 2001 at 8:00 pm

I'm 11-years-old, my world a patchwork of mixed identities and conflicting beliefs, my eyes searching for a horizon I cannot yet see but that I follow almost by instinct. It's August in New York -- a long and gray stretch of humidity and noise, people speaking to me in an accent I cannot understand, streets choked with traffic, shops overflowing with merchandise, buildings that block out the sun and cast permanent shadows upon the city. It's the first of many visits I'll make with my family to America, a small and tentative step along a journey that has begun long ago in my parents' hearts.

Growing up in Iran, I've felt America's presence like a thread woven into the texture of our language and thoughts and everyday realities. I've heard my teachers talk of the American president who forced the Russians out of Iran after the second World War, heard my grandparents talk of the American tanks that freed them, some twenty years later, from mobs of hostile Muslims sticking blades through the cracks in the doors of every Jewish house. I've seen mention of America in the newspaper my father reads every night, heard it in the music my sister listens to all day long, seen it in the eyes of my mother's friends as they return from trips to New York and California, bearing trunk loads of clothes and shoes and little green bottles of creams ("hyper-allergenic, anti-aging, made for every skin-type and every weather") that they show my mother excitedly.

In New York that summer, I stand in endless lines at the Statue of Liberty and in Coney Island, eat lunch at McDonald's, spend entire days waiting for my mother to finish shopping at Macy's. We visit neighborhoods and schools, look at houses, discuss the advantages of living in one state or another. We drop in on the handfuls of Iranian families then living in America. I watch as the adults speak about a move that will, in essence, put an end to life as I've known it. It will be years before I can grasp the enormity of this move, the courage my parents showed in making it.

Five years later, we return to settle in America for good. We arrive the day Elvis dies, sleep the first night in sheets lent to us by an uncle who has come here as a child and never gone back. He lived in a church attic in Pasadena for years, opened a restaurant that he later lost in a fire, became a banker and married a girl from Iran. His first house in Pasadena had no roof and no electrical sockets. Now he drives around in a white Cadillac and takes us to Perino's for dinner.

Through August that year, my sisters and I watch the Brady Bunch on television and eat cinnamon rolls for breakfast. We take driving lessons and dream of the day we can spend an entire afternoon at the mall. We wait for September when school starts.

At the end of the summer, my best friend from Iran writes to me to announce that our friendship is over. We can no longer be friends, she says, because we will soon have nothing left in common. Moving to America, she says, has made me different, unreachable, in effect, American.

Have I become American?

I'm a Jew from a country that's predominantly Muslim, a girl from a culture that prizes mostly men. I have a French grandmother who believes above all in the love of Christ, a Kosher Jewish grandfather who traces his lineage back to Russian Lubavitcher rabbis. I speak four languages, have memories formed in half a dozen countries. I am not so naive as to assume that one's nationality is derived from the color of her passport, her return address or the name of the country where she pays her taxes.

Have I become American?

In the years that follow the death of Elvis on that August day, I go to university, work a job, learn to act and sound less like a foreigner. I learn to appreciate living here, am grateful for the kindness of strangers -- even those who may ignore me, patronize me or even resent me for being here, but who do not deny me the rights they themselves enjoy. Then revolution flares in Iran, American flags burn on the television screen, mobs of angry thugs wave their fists in the camera and take hostages. Sometimes now I see the rage in the eyes of Americans on the street who peg me immediately as a would-be hostage taker; feel the bitterness of the words of overly made-up, elegantly-dressed American women who chase me across the floor of expensive department stores in Westwood and Beverly Hills, wave their fingers in my face and tell me "we" should all go back to the desert we came from.

I couldn't go back now even if I wanted to, I want to tell these women, wouldn't go back even if I could. I came here because I chose America, because I --"we" -- believed in America.

Have I become American?

You don't become American by default, I know -- because you can't safely go home, or can't think of another place to live.

One year becomes a decade, and a decade becomes two. I've lived the largest part of my life in America, raised my children here, buried family and friends and even a few dreams here. I've forgotten much about the old country, slowly fallen out of touch with family and friends from my past. I know the American national Anthem word for word, have abandoned the notion that I may willingly move elsewhere. I keep getting into trouble with other Iranians because of my "western" way of thinking, my refusal to observe certain -- but not all -- codes of conduct or speech so revered in the East. I even have an American flag, given to me as a gift, folded and placed on a shelf in my office.

Have I become American?

I have resigned myself to never feeling that I belong entirely in any one place. It's the way of the future, I tell myself -- a world without borders, without religion or nationalism or all the reasons that divide.

But then, the buildings crumble in a cloud of smoke and lives burn to ashes and suddenly, I find myself horrified and devastated and grieving a loss I cannot quite define. The images on television are too hard to bear. I listen to NPR all day and at night, cry at the mention of casualties, the heroism of the firemen who rushed toward death instead of away from it, the sorrow of survivors who have given up looking for loved ones amid ruins. I'm shocked by what's happened, but not surprised. Growing up in a place where fear and uncertainty were a way of life, I've known better than to assume that any nation, any people, is immune to violence. I've also known -- because I saw it first-hand, because I've spent the better part of my life studying it here in the United States -- that religious fundamentalism, the kind of extremist philosophy that results, ultimately, in the acts we have witnessed, that this way of thinking does not limit itself to a single region, a single cause or target.

I know all this and yet I stare at the consequences of an act that feels personal and direct and tragic in a way I cannot comprehend.

I light candles in memory of the dead, donate money to the Red Cross and the Fallen Firemen's Fund and every other organization set up in the wake of the disaster. I even take out the American flag that has sat for years on my bookshelf next to the pictures of my children and my favorite books, and hang it outside my house as a quiet expression of my sorrow and outrage. My Iranian friends call to say how devastated they feel at what has happened. My American friends call to say they worry about a possible backlash in this country against anyone from the Middle East.

"Have you been a target?" they ask, and I find myself stunned by the question -- by the possibility that I would be considered anything but a party to this loss.

Have I become American?

Then it occurs to me, in the hours I spend awake at night trying to expel the memory of that Tuesday morning from my mind -- it occurs to me that something deep and fundamental has changed: it isn't that I feel any less Iranian than I ever have in the past. It's that I, an Iranian Jew, feel a connection to this country, a connection to the people who have suffered in New York and those who are suffering still -- I feel a connection to them that transcends my place of origin and theirs, my mother tongue and theirs, my childhood places and theirs.

You don't become American, it is true, simply because you live here, because you speak the language, pay the taxes, vote in the elections.

You don't become American because you break with a few traditions, move out of the church attic and buy a white Cadillac. Because you can find your way around Saks and Macy's without trouble. Because you shed a tear, light a candle, raise a flag.

You "become" American when you feel in your heart the kindness of those who have opened their doors to you; the generosity of a place that has granted you rights and opportunities denied to you in your own country, the courage of a people that do not, by and large, require that you renounce your heritage and identity in order to belong here.

It's not about being one thing or becoming another, I've learned. It's about the bond you form with a place, a people, that have asked you for so little, withheld nothing, given so much.

Maybe this is what it takes, I think, to feel you belong.

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