“You’re so American now! The accent, your style, the phrases you use. You’re slipping away from us.”
I’ve run into my middle-school crush on a trip back home. She caught my eye in this mall, and I’ve suddenly lost about 10 years of mounting self-confidence and conversational ability. I embarrassingly apologize to her for this new version of myself, feeling close to passing out from fraudulence and hyper self-consciousness. She says I shouldn’t apologize — it’s a fresh change! Oh, and she’s a fan of the accent. Somehow, in light of these developments, my face only betrays even more embarrassment — a massive shame. Before I scurry away, she says that she hopes I “stick around there; you know America is as good as it gets.” I’m left thinking about that one for a while.
I was touched by this country even before I boarded the 17-hour flight that brought me to America. Growing up, my friends and I couldn’t stop talking about Phineas, Ferb and Dora’s little helper, Boots. We’d go through whole bags of M&M’s, watch Hollywood films and dream of sunny California. We’d fantasize about free water fountains, and gosh, Mum, can we make those PB&J sandwiches, please? We’d discuss how Americans were perpetually in the future — they got to see the movies first, play better video games, and go to so many more concerts.
Life just seemed so much more advanced and enjoyable in the grand United States. So when I arrived, I was beyond ready to assimilate and finally have all the fun.
But I soon realized that totally assimilating meant apologizing for and rejecting my un-American past. It was challenging just to exist in this new reality — so many cultural, political and social norms that I held close were novel and unsettling for my American peers. Over time, I shed the oxford shirts and the accent for more American alternatives. I was embarrassed to tell stories from a barely relatable childhood — we got one brand of cereal, watched old television reruns, and buying a Game Boy was a luxury few could afford.
Americans lived in a comfortable, perfect bubble, and why shouldn’t they? This was objectively the most successful land in the most successful time in history. Implicitly, this meant that every other place was secondary and irrelevant. Flying home to the East felt like degenerating into the past.
Yet flying home was also a reminder of how surprisingly similar my reality was 8,000 miles away from the United States. We may lack PB&Js, but we have some Chevys, burgers and American presidents on our television sets. The world is forever changed by the U.S. — American culture and brand names seep into our daily routines. Statements and decisions made in the Oval Office send ripples across the world through the political and economic ramifications they have, from the Middle East to South Korea. For better or worse, America is an empire that has shaped the world in its image time after time, a fact that I felt and still feel virtually every time I’m traveling outside the U.S.
Paying attention to American elements in my hometown brought me back to my roots. Back home, I was already acting distinctly “American” in my speech and mannerisms, as a consequence of my Western education. Americanism was simultaneously abhorred and fetishized everywhere I went — it had brought us great advancements at the painful cost of our cultures. In forceful gusts, America had erased entire parts of treasured traditions, values and national pride with the promise of replacing it with iPhones, oil rigs and “democracy.” It all made me consider whether America truly was more modern and advanced than other countries, as I had grown up believing. What did these concepts mean, after all? And why were my people bent on Americanism, but Americans completely oblivious to our lives?
These are questions I continue to grapple with. Around me, I see Americans content with their seemingly superior world. They live richer lives, eat sweeter cereal and boast of their boundless freedoms. But there’s an infinity of peoples, cultures and perspectives on the outside that they may never know. This is an infinity of lives and dreams not so different from the ones Americans hold so dear — lives and dreams that have been choked to nourish this grand empire I now find myself in. As the current political climate prompts this country to creep into its shell yet again, the world stands bemused. We watch this isolationism cautiously, even as America continues to pervade our ways of life.
Jayesh Kaushik writes the Wednesday blog on his experience as a first-generation immigrant. Contact him at [email protected] .