"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Have You Ever Wanted To Change Your Citizenship?

Millions of immigrants to the United States would be very happy to have American citizenship.  They no longer can be deported to back to the war zones, poverty, ethnic and religious repression, and abusive governments they left.  They travel under the protective umbrella of the United States, and enjoy social and economic benefits undreamed of back home. Yet most, if they could, would return to their homelands. No matter how impossible the circumstances – Cuba under Castro, Revolutionary Iran, or chaotic Somalia – the sentiments are the same. “I want to go home”.

I know an Iranian woman who waited almost 20 years for a permanent visa to the US, but has no intention of residing here.  She needed the visa to be able to visit her children in Canada, and eventually will apply for residency there. She did not flee Iran and has a reasonable and comfortable life in Tehran despite the hardships and the mullahs.  Citizenship whether in the United States and Canada was for her a means to a very personal and practical end.  Iran will always be her home.

We hired a Salvadoran nanny a number of years ago, and over time helped her get her working papers, Social Security Card, green card, and citizenship. An American passport gave her the security of never having to leave the country which gave her employment, security, and freedom; and allowed her to visit her home country whenever she wanted. However, it soon became clear that once she became too old to clean houses and take care of children, she would return to El Salvador and live out her years there.  I once asked her if she liked America.  Surprisingly she said no – surprising because I thought everyone loved America - and although she could not articulate her reasons, she was never really happy here.

I have a close Chilean friend who has spent over 40 years in the United States.  Her husband and one of her children are Americans.  Yet she never ceases to talk about Chile and Latin America.  Four decades have done nothing to erase the memories of childhood or pull up the roots of culture.  She is Chilean to the core, and someday soon  I am sure she will return to Santiago.

The Sixties were years when many young Americans hated their country.  It was waging an unnecessary, brutal, and criminal war in Vietnam.  It was racist, misogynist, and homophobic; and its capitalistic excesses consigned millions to desperation and poverty. Not only to escape the draft but to flee the depredations of a country gone bad, many considered going to Canada, a reasonable, rational, peace-loving, and moderate place where everyone seemed to be happy; and while they might miss the hurly-burly of American life, they would do anything to live far from its demonic core.

Few people ever actually went to Canada or any other country for that matter. While many on the East Coast dreamed of moving to Europe – a civilized idyll compared to the Wild West, murderous United States – they stayed put.  They talked longingly of France and envied its month-long vacations on the Cote d’Azur; long, leisurely lunches and endless high-brow chat in the cafes of the Latin Quarter; its universal health care and free education.  More than anything, they admired its sophisticated diffidence.  The French had seen the worst that human nature could do, suffered all the wars, pestilence, marauding, conquest, and penury of 1000 years of history, and emerged with an appreciation for the good things of life.  After all, the French said, what else is there?

Many children of the Sixties went to India, fleeing the unctuous priests, Bible-thumping preachers, and religious sanctimony of the United States.  In India spirituality was refined, sophisticated and sensible; and also had passion and ecstasy. Young Americans trekked to Hardwar, Varanasi, and Allahabad to live the Hindu life of meditation and asceticism, leaving all the comfort and pleasure of America behind.  India was, like France, a country which had evolved over thousands of years and had much more to teach them than upstart, wild and crazy US.

They all came back, and few went to France to live.  When all was said and done, they couldn’t turn their back on their mother country, their native place, the place that gave them them their cultural identity.  As all these young people got older, they realized that nationality was not something easily exchanged; and that the allure of Parisian life would eventually irritate and anger.  Its formalism, traditionalism, and implacable insistence on the primacy of French culture would become intolerable. There are too many irrelevant expectations in France.

India was a place of spiritual sojourn and short-term psychedelic-like experience.  Sooner rather than later, however, the disease, poverty, social immobility and heat-and-dust would kick in. An American could no sooner become an Indian than the Man in the Moon.

In today’s insecure world, changing citizenship is more difficult than ever. Even if one were to want to become an Italian or a Spaniard, it would be a long and painful process.  At the same time globalism and easy tourism have provided windows into the world and we can see that France is not all that it is cracked up to be.  It is going through the same paroxysms of racial and ethnic insanity as the United States once did. Paris, while still in many ways old European, has become as globalized as any.  Once you get out of the the old-line 7th or 16th and head out to the outer arondissements the neighborhoods are like ours – African, Asian, and Caribbean.  The little butcher shops and boulangeries are still there, but far fewer than ever. Paris is not New York by any means, but what had attracted us all in the Sixties has inevitably changed beyond recognition.

In other words, even if one might have notions of changing countries, why bother in this globalizing, international world?

Although I would never describe the United States as xenophobic, all this terrorism and concern for national security has certainly closed minds more than ever before.  Ironically, at the same time that the world has become a universal marketplace for goods, services, and ideas, it has become a darker, more threatening place.  More reason to stay at home.  American democracy, for all its warts and blemishes, looks better than ever.

These temporal concerns beg the question, however.  We cannot shed America no matter how hard we may try because it is in our bones.  How could I be French after drive-ins, Saturday afternoon Yankee games on the radio, playing in the sprinkler, cowboys-and-Indians, Yale, the Lower East Side, and slavery? My humor is American, my reflexes are American, my politics are American, and my spirit is American.

I remember a lunch I had at the World Bank with some British colleagues.  I was particularly enthusiastic about a new idea I had about development or simplifying the maddening bureaucracy. “My, my”, one of them said sniffingly. “Aren’t we very American today.” I had no British reserve according to which one was never enthusiastic, but quietly sanguine.  Americans were absurdly optimistic, open, and silly.

They were right of course, and had hit on one of the things I could never change even after decades of English-style country day schools, boarding schools, and Oxford and Cambridge look-alike universities – optimism, practicality, and enthusiasm.

I always used to think that only lovers who shared the same mother tongue could truly know each other.  How could you express your attitude, personality, or worldview if you couldn’t do it with the full range of humor and subtlety afforded by native language. I changed my opinion over the years.  I didn’t need French, Spanish, German, or Urdu to love and be loved; but I am still convinced that language – i.e. culture – enhances any relationship.  How can I notice a peculiar American oddity – a way of walking, tone of voice, accent, demeanor – and convey it humorously in Russian?

So, in addition to the fact that personality and character are hardwired by the time we are 5, culture is also programmed not long afterwards.  We become American sooner than we think, and changing cultures would mean somehow ripping out and changing the circuitry that makes us run.

Am I patriotic? No, at least not in the flag-waving, love-it-or-leave it sense; but in a hardwired, ineluctable sense.  I cannot do otherwise than be an American.  I have been lucky.  I have been able to revel in it.

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