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|July 11, 2000|
Rohini Balakrishnan Ramanathan
America's 224th birthday
July 4 was America's 224th birthday and a first for this millennium. It was quite a birthday bash with the largest ever fireworks lighting up New York's night skies and morphing night into day. Like gently gliding swans, ships and sailboats from all over the world, including Bharat, descended into the New York harbour in a majestic show of tribute to freedom gained from foreign rule 224 years ago.
For India, freedom is a more recent word, but freedom is a word that every time it is uttered evokes man's yearning for it, man's right to it, and also man's desire, at least in the past, to have kept it a more exclusive pleasure for a few. While on July 4 we think of George Washington and the other military giants who carved out a nation called America out of a vast land, as an Indian-American one cannot help but think of the struggles of the mighty giants of passive resistance like Mahatma Gandhi. Remembering the fathers of two great nations that share the same democratic ideals.
America is a land of immigrants not just in the legal sense but even in terms of the energy that's supplied to drive this most powerful nation on earth. Throughout its recent history this young nation has had its supply of young blood, meaning that of its immigrants, in a significant way. As we all know, young blood is a must in terms of idealism, motivation, faith, energy, unabashed desire to acquire, possess and the like.
The powerful Greek goddess Athena-like Statue of Liberty overlooking New York harbour holding up a stone tablet in her left hand and a shining torch in her right -- beseeches the poor and the huddled masses of the world to come take refuge at her mighty feet. Believe me, those feet are indeed huge. She is a kind lady and has mostly kept her promise to be kind to all who have landed at her doorstep.
On July 4, at a ceremonial speech, President Bill Clinton suggests that America never close its doors to new immigrants. What Congress does and will do is another story not relevant for this column at this point. On July 4, in Washington, DC, several immigrants from about 20 countries around the world become American citizens taking the oath of allegiance to America, all with their right hands raised.
One Indian -- now an American, of course -- interviewed by a TV reporter, says bashfully, "Now I'm home!" I am not quite sure how to interpret this, because in my mind the dominant question at that point is, 'So, what's India? Just your birthplace, and that's all?' A certain sense of sadness befalls me that there was no room for him, or even me, in our birthplace.
In my own 25 years of stay in this country I see a groundswell of Indians. On July 4, on my return road trip to Columbus, Ohio, a distance of 600 miles from New York, where I live, I run into at least a dozen Indian families at the various rest stops. As they pull into the parking lot, they spread their wares on their closed car hoods, have a bite to eat with drinks purchased at the wayside McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, etc, turning the experience into a little picnic.
It's heartwarming, this contrast to the only one or two Indian families looking Indian in every way, including their clothes, we used to see 20 years ago on such trips. Now the only thing Indian about these "new" Indians are their features and skin colour.
Their clothes -- mostly designer shorts, T-shirts, baseball caps representing their various favourite sports teams -- are entirely American. We blend in much more easily now. Their licence plates proclaim their homes now to be Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, etc. So what's India to us now, I ask myself on July 4, America's birthday, even as some of us have the American star-spangled flag fluttering and flapping proudly on our porches. Just another tourist destination?!
The Op-Ed page of the July 3 New York Times has an interesting display of 35 photographs, five across and seven down, filling up pretty much the whole page, of people from various parts of the world, including America. All of them have answered the question posed to them, "What is America?"
Quickly my eyes land on two Indian-looking faces. One, a young man; the other, an older woman. They are both holding up the American flag across their chest like in a jail mug shot line-up. The caption above Dhananjay, India, reads, "Religious Freedom", above Sharada, India, "Sundar (beautiful)".
My mind asks, what would these two have said if the question was, "What is India?" Do their answers imply India does not have religious freedom or that it is not beautiful? I hope they are implying no such thing.
After pondering these questions for a minute I move on to examine the other photographs, the captions under them and where those people are from. It's the Americans who live here who have less kind things to say about America. More than half (20) of the 35 live in the US, and most of these 20 in the New York area. There is just one black adult face. There are a total of three kids. Some of the not-so-kind words of Americans about America are: "Imperialism" -- Aaron, New York City; "Lost Opportunities" -- Dan, Seattle.
I don't quite understand this description. Katherine holding up the flag vertically and Amelia from Boston use the words, "contradiction" and "excess", respectively. To Devo of Kansas City, America is "ignorance". To Shekira of the Bronx, New York, probably an immigrant, America is "sex". Ahem! And to Frankie, of Queens, another borough of New York City, it is "money". Ahem, again!
To the young (under-10 perhaps) Eliot of Brooklyn, yet another New York City borough, America is "power". To Dewey, of White Plains, a suburb of New York, it is "star power". Turning to takes by some foreigners, it is "hot dogs" to Errol of Philippines, "plastics" to Ian of Canada, "ketchup" to Constantino of Greece, and "consumerism" to Silva of Barcelona. Although I'm tempted to quote them all, some of them really complimentary and true, too in my opinion, like "open-minded", "original ideas", "fun", "choice", "hope", "diversity", "possibility", I shall end it with one last quite interesting description, "exhaustion", by Pilar of Italy. Yep, exhaustion is indeed a phenomenon sociologists, psychologists and labour leaders, among others, are beginning to wonder about in America.
Going back in history, to Commodore Stephen Decatur, "freshly returned in 1816 from subduing the Dey of Algiers and swollen with nationalist fervour", America apparently meant "Our country, right or wrong". (The New York Times, "The Truest Measure of Patriotism," David M Kennedy, July 4, Op-Ed page).
In closing, what does America mean to me, a long-time US resident? Well, let's just say I haven't made up my mind yet!
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