When I was in high school, I really wanted to go to art school. I filled pages and pages of sketchbooks with drawings, paintings and sketches. I had wanted to attend a program called the California State Summer School for the Arts — a government funded program for high school artists, and it was a big deal to get into. For three months I left informational brochures on my parents’ nightstand, hoping that they’d take notice and encourage me to apply.
While I was stuck in a world of my own — thinking about art school and filled with the heady dreams of an average American high schooler — my parents were concentrated on a different issue. The year was 2016, and Donald Trump had just been elected president. My parents still weren’t American citizens, and there was a sense of fear in the air.
I lived in the safety of being American. Holding an American passport was a sign of security — it gave me control over my life and liberty. I’d never have to apply for an H1-B visa, a type of work visa that allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for specialty jobs requiring a specialized degree.
That was the type of visa my parents used to enter the United States in 2001. Almost 75% of the H1-B visas issued by the United States go to Indian-born workers. But the issue isn’t getting the visa, although it’s a hurdle in itself. It’s keeping the visa. The issue is, the U.S. company that you work for will sponsor your visa, which means you’re at their mercy. I watched my father spend a decade working in Information Technology with grueling hours that included weekends. He was always on call, always on the phone, always on the go — and there was nothing he could do about it. You leave the company, you have to leave the country — as simple as that. And with an 11-year-old kid and one more on the way, my father simply could not risk it.
Until one day, in 2011, both my parents qualified for their green card. They finally got a piece of paper that proved they were permanent residents of a country they spent a decade living in. And five years later, my parents became naturalized United States citizens. Finally, a sense of security filled our home. We were all American citizens — my parents, my brother and I were all safe.
My parents don’t take voting lightly. It’s an American right that they have earned; a privilege that they have lost blood, sweat and tears to obtain. It is the reward at the end of a long journey towards giving their children a better life. Being able to vote is my family’s yearly reminder that we are valued by this country and that our opinion matters.
Up until they were finally able to vote, they’d watch every presidential and local political debate and decide on who they thought was the better candidate. In a way, my parents were theoretical voters. They would theoretically debate who to vote for in local and state elections, based on what they saw on TV and on the news. Heated debates would be held in our household about Democrats and Republicans — who had the better policies and who had the more charismatic leaders. My parents didn’t fully understand the two-party system since they came from India, where the system is parliamentary, similar to the United Kingdom.
A year after they became citizens, I was a high school junior in AP U.S. History, and it became my self-proclaimed job to educate my family on the U.S. government. My mother, a history buff at heart, took notes as I told her about the Constitution and the amendments. On the other hand, my dad, a politics buff, asked about the different political parties and their values. I showed them how to register to vote, and we received our ballots in the mail along with a booklet detailing every proposition and its arguments.
To this day, every time we get this booklet, we go through it page by page, and decide whether to vote for or against. We spend hours going through the arguments and looking up the impact it’ll have on us. It’s a family bonding activity for us, and we always learn something new about our world and each other at the end of every session. It may seem cliche, but American citizenship is responsible for my relationship with my parents — it’s the opinionation that brings us together.
I ended up achieving my lofty dreams of going to CSSSA, and despite my parents’ wariness of their life in America, they still agreed to drop off their teenage daughter 300-something miles away from home for a summer. The artistic side of me was innately “American” to them, and they always commented on it. I was American for painting portraits and listening to rock music; I was American for speaking my mind and allowing my opinions to take space in this world.
In a way, I’d like to think that I showed my parents that being American was expressing their opinions unabashedly, especially when it comes to the state of affairs of our country. And although the dreams of being an artist have slipped away from me as the years pass by, I have always retained the opinionation that comes with being an American. We are entitled to our opinions, and we reserve the right to voice those opinions without fear of repercussions. This is a liberty that is often scarce in other parts of the world, as my parents remind me, and it is a liberty that we must protect.