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As Donald Trump and his followers redefine what America is and whom it belongs to, I re-share my America and what it means to me.
Celebrating the Stars and the Stripes
(Back in 2010, Joel Stein wrote about ‘My Own Private India’ in TIME Magazine and created a bit of a storm Time Article- Racism or Storm in a Chai Cup? I thought maybe an Indian immigrant should write about ‘My Own Private America’ – and how different it seems to be from the space inhabited by Stein. Six years have passed and my sentiments remain the same. )
I came to the US in the 80’s, as an immigrant via India, Hong Kong and Africa, and landed in Astoria, a gritty Greek neighborhood in Queens. As night fell, the cabbie dropped us outside a line of tired, weathered three-family houses where my cousin lived in a rented apartment. Dogs barked, garbage cans clanged and a lot of working class men sat with their beer bottles on the stoop. My heart sank – was this New York, it seemed so different from the flashy, glossy metropolis I had seen in Hollywood movies!
Next morning the sun was shining, people were rushing to work, kids to school and I fell in love with the prosaic neighborhood with its heart of gold. As an old Pakistani watchman told me, ‘Yeh bahut hi pyara elaka hai’ (it’s a very lovable neighborhood). Within a few months, the Greek landlady, who hardly spoke any English, had overfed me on dolmas, which I loved; another Greek widow had become a confidant; an Irish Catholic single mom befriended me and I had become a part of the PTA at the elementary school. The Chinese manager at a discount store in the strip of friendly, utilitarian stores was always wising us up on everything American, and we were also gradually finding our own lost Indian community – all those who hadn’t migrated to Edison.
One Street, Every House of Worship
I loved the fact that a street in nearby Flushing had practically every house of worship from Hindu to Buddhist to Islamic to Christian, and that we could talk Hindi or our smattering of Cantonese, French and almost non-existent Spanish to complete strangers. In the city, the iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral became a must stop for me – just to sit there and watch the candles flickering and the endless streams of worshipers coming in, brought a sense of peace, the presence of a higher power.
Other things touched me about America – the sense of caring for others. Coming from India and Africa, I had never seen the disabled treated so well – the idea that you should give up your seat for someone weaker than you sounds so common-sense yet is so little practiced in many other parts of the world. The parking for the handicapped, the many services for those who didn’t have a level playing field – the whole sense of fairness appealed to me.
America at its core
Over the years, in spite of the occasional slip-ups and the setbacks, this is the America which has stayed with me, the one I’ve grown to love. This is the America I know is at the core – and that is all that matters. It’s an inclusive America and at heart it does have gold. People are evolving toward it – you see it in the increased openness, intermarriages, friendships and the solidarity of the young, in the sense of justice, of the rule of law. Sure racism still exists but there are so many more voices raised whenever it raises its ugly head.
I went back to my old neighborhood of Astoria recently and it is just as hardy as ever. Change has come to it in different faces, different races but the old-timers are still there, and still as accepting. Manhattan-style condominiums are springing up but the sturdy old no-nonsense, no-frills houses are still there, with their neatly tended little front lawns, some with an overhead trellis of grape leaves. Italian bakeries, halal shops, Chinese takeouts, Greek cafes, Indian grocery stores and Thai restaurants all ensure some heavenly eating, and windows into different lives – and they are all thriving side by side. As always, it’s open house in Astoria, no matter who you are.
The part which never fails to amaze me is that when I take the N subway from Manhattan to Astoria – glancing at my fellow passengers I see a virtual United Nations – Latinos, Chinese, South Asians, Blacks, whites all wedged together, sitting side by side on the Great American Journey. If Lady Liberty was to see them, she would definitely shed a tear – because this is exactly what America is all about. And on the Fourth of July, with the firecrackers still ringing in our ears – we can say amen to that.
Donald Trump may try to rewrite this story but if each of us holds true to what America means to each of us, he will not succeed. USA does stand for the UNITED States of America!
Time Article- Racism or Storm in a Chai Cup?
We each have our own private America, memories of what the country is really about. What’s yours?