“You’re not American? But you speak such good English!”
I’m in my freshman year dining hall, making new friends over cold pizza and casual racism. Casual because my classmate doesn’t seem to be overtly prejudiced, and they’re definitely not aware of their faux pas. I shrug and inform them that English is actually my first language and that a significant number of international students on campus probably grew up in English-speaking institutions and households.
Throughout that first semester at UC Berkeley, I navigated countless awkward interactions like this with friends, GSIs and even professors. Sometimes, their ignorance only extended to minor errors such as mispronouncing my name or mistaking me for a different nationality. But often, I was left astounded by the ignorant questions and remarks I encountered from progressive students at a campus such as UC Berkeley’s. I was asked how I knew the words to a Bruno Mars song (“Do you get English music in Dubai?”), why my country of origin and residence didn’t line up and whether I felt lucky to be away from the “unrest” back home.
Not only was I a stranger in the United States, I was being repeatedly mischaracterized and profiled by Berkeley’s “woke” population. The U.S. was founded on a long, bloody history of immigration, and despite progress, it seems that this country is far from learning from past mistakes.
Over time, I got used to this ignorance. I accepted American hubris as a part of my overall experience in this country. I hadn’t come to the U.S. expecting it to adapt itself to me, nor did I hold it to any particular standards, but I soon came to realize that most Americans weren’t even aware of their own obliviousness.
I see this lack of self-awareness in ideological clashes at UC Berkeley, in larger American politics and in the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world. Americans across the spectrum lack perspective — progressives empathize with and speak for underprivileged communities from an ironic position of privilege, whereas conservatives are entirely clueless about communities that are not their own. The U.S. media curates narratives to align with the pre-existing ways the country’s people see the international world — narratives that I often find completely disconnected from the realities of those of us living in them. The result? A widening gap between Americans and the reality of this nation.
Sometimes it feels like I can help this country. I can connect the dots and provide the perspective that Americans so desperately seek. I represent what it feels like to have a staggered identity — where my passport may not necessarily tell you anything about my ethnicity. I represent what it’s like to be asked, “Where are you from?” and not be able to provide a clear-cut response. And I represent my experiences with abject poverty in India’s streets and immense wealth in Dubai’s malls. Like myself, millions of immigrants in this country have stories from their unique backgrounds. Millions are on the sidelines, waiting to join the chorus of this country’s voices.
In my short time here, I have learned from and come to love the United States. I have fallen for its optimism, its unending promises and its place as a leader wading through this chaotic world. I am here for the American dream — to make it big and help those around me do it, too. But I am unsure if the American dream is what it used to be.
By all accounts, this country is changing. It is struggling to contain its divergent people, hopes and dreams. For the United States to make peace with itself, it must truly acknowledge and accept its new identity. It must embrace its new constituents and their voices — not suppress and separate itself from them. My relationship with the U.S. has been an important one, but it has been one-sided. I have let this country shape me in its image, but I am unsure if it wants me to give back. Despite the United States’ gifts, life here is often persistently alienating for the modern immigrant — but it doesn’t have to be.
Through this column, I’ve had the chance to explore and share this alienation from and with the United States. I am glad to have added to the voices of my fellow immigrants in this country, to those who came before me and to the converging world that will follow. While the U.S. may attempt to avoid it, there is ultimately no escaping the realities of global immigration — my immigrant parents are thousands of miles away from their homes, and I am even farther from them. Home is no longer a physical location, but a dynamic place rooted within my divergent experiences.
And for now, home is America — flaws and all.
Jayesh Kaushik writes the Wednesday blog on his experience as a first-generation immigrant. Contact him at [email protected] .