January 22, 2014

Imperfect, But Welcoming To The Tired And Poor

By: Kaavya Ramesh

In light of the ongoing debate about citizenship and immigration policy heating up within the Beltway, I thought I would take a moment – from outside the beltway – to reflect on what it means to be an American citizen.

I am a second-generation Indian-American. My father immigrated to the U.S. in 1983, leaving Chennai to pursue a doctorate at Syracuse University. He tells me stories of the world in which he grew up – a world where he shared one bedroom with his three siblings, a world without television, microwaves, or dishwashers, a world where entertainment constituted playing cricket with his friends in an alleyway during the day and reading Amar Chitra Katha comics under a flashlight at night. Today, because of the scholarship he received to attend Syracuse thirty years ago, he leads a far more comfortable life.

Some people like to tell me the American Dream is dead. My father is the reason I disagree.

There are so many reasons I’m grateful for my citizenship, and yet, many of the reasons are regularly glossed over as “American exceptionalism.” Crying “exceptionalism,” though, overlooks the fact that there really, truly are things that make American citizenship exceptional. Here are three aspects of my country for which I am grateful (although this list is not exhaustive – there are so many things for which I am grateful that they may not all fit on a list):

  1. Our commitment to at least try and uphold our institutional ideals – We might not always succeed in battling it, but on balance, we have an incredibly low tolerance as a society for corruption. In America, corruption is seen as the exception rather than the norm. When I talk to my cousins in India, they tell me that most Indians know corruption is an ongoing fact of their government – they just accept it because they don’t know what to do about it.

2. We value transparency – We try not censor information. We’re committed, as a community, to openness. When I was in China in 2012, I couldn’t search for “Arab spring” or “democratic revolts” on search engines. When I mentioned the Egyptian protests for democracy to my Chinese peer tutor, she replied, “What protests?” Of course, sometimes, we don’t succeed, but when the government is publicly exposed as undermining transparency, the public condemns it, and Congress tries to right the problem.

 3. We don’t base nationhood on ethnicity – The U.S. is an immigrant nation. We actually are the “melting pot” that is so often stressed in middle school classrooms. In many countries, the concept of “nation” is defined by ethnicity, race, and religion, making certain subsets of people and their children permanent outsiders with no social mobility.

America is not perfect. No country is perfect. Yet, I am deeply grateful for my citizenship.  Perhaps we should resist the temptation to move from the one extreme of “My country, right or wrong” to the other extreme of “My country, always wrong.” In many ways, our nation does still embody the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Kaavya M. Ramesh is a senior at Michigan State University, triple-majoring in International Relations, Chinese, and Comparative Cultures & Politics.