We are a melting pot. A melting pot of churches on every corner. A melting pot where finding halal meat markets or mosques is like finding a needle in a very large, mostly Caucasian haystack. A melting pot that uses the Bible to swear people into office. We are a melting pot of the same homogeneity from which we claim we have moved away.
When I was in Sri Lanka, my mother was able to take me to KFC every weekend because almost all restaurants and stores were halal (meaning that the meat they served was prepared in accordance with Muslim law). Granted, this was probably not the healthiest decision, but at least I had the freedom to eat a piece of deeply saturated, fried, holy goodness. Now the only halal thing I can have is a fish fillet sandwich from McDonald’s, and if people are already questioning the contents of their meat, imagine what’s in the fish.
After living in Hawaii, we moved to an area of Sacramento that isn’t very diverse, making it harder to acclimate. I went to a school that was 95 percent Caucasian. Rocklin is definitely a white-picket-fenced suburb. Most of our family friends lived closer to the southern end of Sacramento simply because there were more immigrants in that area. The difficulties associated with assimilating and finding others who also share the plight of immigration have led to pockets of culture rather than an even spread throughout the city. In my opinion, that’s a real shame.
The whole point of a melting pot is to promote the idea of acceptance, but if my culture cannot be accepted unless it’s surrounded by similar immigrant cultures, then is the pot really melting? I fully understand and accept the push-and-pull notion that comes with immigration. I will meet the United States halfway, so long as it meets my Sri Lankan side halfway. I picked up an accent and American clothes. I stopped using the metric system and started writing the month before the day. All I want in return is a more even spread of halal food options and mosques to prevent the clump of cultures and promote a more even sense of assimilation. Instead, the current situation forces a conglomeration of similar cultures to somehow survive in a city of people who were born and raised here. So long as I am part of one immigrant family surrounded by other nonimmigrant families, I will never be truly accepted.
The United States promised me freedom, which I suppose I have — more than I would in many other countries. It promised me opportunity, which I definitely have, if I can overlook the crippling debt my twentysomething-year-old ass is about to face. It promised me a home, and I suppose it delivered — but it just doesn’t feel wholesome.
I don’t understand why there can be a Starbucks on every corner but my family has to drive at least half an hour to get to a mosque. Don’t get me wrong: I love my soy white mocha with a pump of hazelnut syrup, but I’d also like to not have to spend 30 minutes in a Honda Civic because I’m trying to practice my religion. Ideally, other cultures would spread throughout the city instead of being forced into certain isolated areas. The saddest part of it all — beyond the fact that no one had answers — was that people discouraged me from asking questions about why this cultural block existed in the first place.
To question the social arrangement we encountered in the United States would draw suspicion and outrage from others — unfounded aggression we already experienced simply based on our religion. Half the reason my mother and I didn’t wear hijabs was because we were worried about our safety. In the news, we heard stories of Muslim women who were verbally — sometimes even physically — abused because they were identified as Muslims. We didn’t want people to label us as terrorists. We didn’t want to harm anyone or for anyone to harm us. My family knew the importance of putting on a red, white and blue smile so that no one could question our loyalty.
The United States rides on the ideas of diversity, opportunity and freedom, but these terms are frivolous unless a value is actually given to them. Our country has made strides to be inclusive and accepting of all the ethnicities we welcome into the land of the free, but there is still a lot of ignorant, homogeneous thinking spreading from sea to shining sea. It would be one thing if the United States had its own defined culture that it hoped to retain, but because the country promotes an idea of inclusivity, it is not unreasonable for immigrants such as myself to hold our nation to actually embracing culture inclusively.
I am not ungrateful, and I am not impatient. I am simply confused. If we truly are a progressive nation, then let us progress into accepting everyone who lives here. I call this place my home with a tinge of emptiness that still lingers, and I am patiently waiting for the day this country accepts me with open arms, just as I have accepted it. I’m just holding the United States to a standard it claims to have already achieved. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.
Ilaf Esuf writes the Monday column on the challenges of being an immigrant. You can contact her at [email protected].