April 22, 2002
"The great social adventure of America is no longer the conquest of the wilderness but the absorption of fifty different peoples," journalist Walter Lippmann said in 1913. Ellis Island was still the gateway through which thousands poured into America at that time. But today, almost a century later, Lippmann's words still apply. America is, and remains, a melting pot.
I am an immigrant. I came to America via an accidental meeting on the Internet. Who knew that the man I started a heated political argument with on a Usenet newsgroup would end up being husband and helpmeet some three or four years down the line? I am, as it happens, no stranger to living in foreign lands. I have been doing so for most of my life, ever since I was ten years old and waved good bye to the country in which I had been born, Yugoslavia, never to live there again. In the aftermath of that farewell I have lived in three countries in Africa, for a little while in the United Kingdom, and for several years in New Zealand before I came to the United States. What am I, then? Who am I?
I was born into a fractious country, a child of a mixed marriage between an Orthodox Serb mother and a father who identified himself as ethnically Serb but who was of the Muslim faith and had been born in the mountains of Herzegovina and raised in Sarajevo (a name which the world would get to know with a terrible intimacy many years later). My family was not actively religious -- but, for the Serb, being Orthodox is a little like being Jewish is for the Jews. Many traditions that may have started as ecclesiastical remain rooted in the popular practice, even with the practitioners not attending masses regularly every Sunday.
For my part, my family kept Slava -- a day specific to every Serb Orthodox family, commemorating the occasion when the original pagan head of the household accepted Christianity. When my grandmother and grandfather met and married, they sat down to have a discussion as to whose Slava they would celebrate -- and discovered that they shared a rather unusual and unique saint, Saint Avram (or Abraham), whose feast day was on November 11. (The identity of this saint caused me no little confusion when I was a child, because I could not understand how the Jewish patriarch Abraham had come to be sainted in the Orthodox Church -- until I found out that ours was a different holy man, who certainly did not sire the Tribes of Israel.)
My grandparents had two daughters; each of the daughters had a daughter. Usually and traditionally the Slava of a family is carried on by the oldest son, but there were no boys to take up the banner and so it became the responsibility of all of us. I remain essentially irreligious in the sense of attending church services, but I maintain the customs and traditions of my house and my family. On November 11 every day I make the Slava wheat, a special dish commemorating the Slava and the departed ancestors of the family. I light a candle, which may not be extinguished until it gutters out by itself. I visit the nearest Orthodox church, to light a handful of tallow candles in remembrance of those I loved who are no longer with me.
I no longer live in Yugoslavia. It would be just as easy to abandon these cultural duties and obligations and embrace the culture of the new world in which I live -- I am not married to a man of my own culture, and I could just as well accept his milieu and traditions and forget all the trappings of something that no longer wholly or fully defines me. But I find that I cannot abandon everything that made me what I am. Turning my back on the cultural traditions of my family and my ethnic background would be sacrilege; it would be abandoning my ancestry, the people who loved and nurtured me, and courting forgetfulness. I am what I was born. If I had children, they would probably be taught what I know and what I practise -- they would speak my language and know how to make Slava wheat.
I have no children and therefore my traditions will probably die with me. But other immigrants who come to places like America do have children. These kids go to American schools, mingle with American and other immigrant children, and it is difficult to trammel them with some of their culture's trappings when they feel nothing but trapped by it and before they are old enough to learn to appreciate their heritage.
Many of these children came to America with their families from countries full of strife and misery. Many of them were too young to know why their parents left the mother country and never bother to ask, remaining very hazy about their past. Some of those who were old enough know the reason for the flight have terrifying memories of their own and do not wish to remember the horrors from which they have fled. All of those children are inevitably aware of their ethnicity -- sometimes it is entrenched in their very physical makeup. But, at the same time, they are exposed to all the influences outside the home, and are equally inevitably drawn away from that ethnicity into becoming homogeneous, "American."
"I'm forgetting Arabic," a high-school student is quoted in a recent National Geographic article, "Changing America" (National Geographic, September 2001). "I can feel it fading away, being sucked away from me."
"It's part of becoming an American," says a friend of his.
So are other things, like Muslim girls who wear traditional garb which covers every part of their bodies but have pictures of muscular hunks wearing nothing but bikini briefs taped up inside their lockers. These kids argue with their parents about the clothes they must wear according to tradition; about who they may associate with according to tradition; about whom they can contemplate marrying according to tradition. A Sikh student talks about having finally convinced his father to allow him to cut his hair. A bunch of kids goes out for ice cream after school -- an Italian, an Afghan, a Cambodian, an African American, a Palestinian. They talk about rap music, they flirt with girls. These are, says the author of the National Geographic article, "normal American teenagers," and wonders how he'll get them to discuss immigration issues -- and then realises that the most important issue has already been underlined for him, by their very presence, their actions, their attitudes. This melting pot is what is changing America -- how, we don't know yet, but there is something deeply significant going on here. "We make America more interesting," a student says confidently.
The composition of recent immigrants to the United States is very different from the beginning of the last century. Then, most immigrants came from Europe. As recently as 1960, 75% of new immigrants came from European countries; today, only 15% do. The numbers of immigrants from Asia and Latin America have burgeoned, though. Projected US population in 2050 shows a jump of 5.2% for population with Asian/Pacific Islander ethnic background and a virtual doubling of Hispanic population, and the Caucasian population is predicted to drop from 69.2% to 52.8%. There's a song in New Zealand which says that what the world needs is a great big melting pot "big enough to take the world and all it's got" which will turn out "coffee coloured people by the score" -- and it seems that this is exactly what the United States is providing.
But is America really accepting its immigrant population?
September 11, 2001, changed many things in America, and one of those things, tragically, was the attitude to immigrants whose countries of origin gave them features and coloring which compared to those of the men accused of flying the planes that brought down the Twin Towers. In December of 2001 the Houston Chronicle ran an article entitled "Strangers in their own country," which graphically illustrates the immigrants' pain. A female engineering student who has never felt "anything but American," who has never even considered returning to her native Egypt, has started to feel the weight of suspicious stares on her as she moves across campus with her hair covered in a scarf in deference to Muslim dress codes. "I feel that they think anyone foreign is barbaric... that I could have sympathy of another culture's perspective, they think I am barbaric."
Hundreds of thousands of American Muslims recoiled with horror at what had been done in New York and Washington, allegedly by men of their faith. However, unlike their "American" friends, colleagues and counterparts, they cannot help but understand the perspective from which those men may have seen the world. American Muslims may have some understanding the possible reasons for American retaliation in Afghanistan, but they also fear for the safety of Afghan civilians who share their faith. Immigrants have to reconcile a comprehension of American "security measures" with the very real possibility that they themselves will be the target of these measures. In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, several dark-skinned men who looked Arabic were removed from airplanes because of other passengers' "discomfort" at their presence on the aircraft.
It is not fair, says one of the immigrants, to demand of people to decide between the country they chose to come and live in and their country of origin. It is difficult for someone who has never had to differentiate between country of residence and country of origin to comprehend how unfair that is; someone who is born and dies in the same country can love that country with an undivided heart. The places of childhood which are loved with a fierce and burning love do not have to be abjured for a new land. It is impossible to root out the place of one's birth from one's heart.
Many US citizens, immigrant or native-born, were interviewed by the media in the wake of the September 11 tragedy. A great many of these were Muslim, with origins in countries of the Middle East and the Arab world. None of these people supported the September 11 attacks, none condoned them, none believed that the United States "deserved" them -- but most found themselves in the precarious position of sympathising with what they believe to be the reasons behind the attacks. Most said that the best way to deal with their concerns is through the ways that being American opened to them -- by exercising their right to free speech and their right to an opinion on issues that may be controversial, although the American Bill of Rights itself is under attack in the post-9/11 days. The American Muslims have faced the problems stirred up by America's sometimes capricious foreign policy long before Osama bin Laden became a household name. "Bin Laden is merely a fanatic who is using these issues [for his own agenda]," an Iraqi-American said during an interview for the Houston Chronicle. But any attempt to explain a different viewpoint or a questioning of US foreign policy is increasingly shouted down as un-patriotic and un-American, drowning out the very free speech that America is sworn to protect and defend. The feeling that the US did not exhaust every available diplomatic avenue before it launched the attack on Afghanistan is widespread, but right now is not something to proclaim out loud on the town square.
Much as Americans resent being lumped together in one amorphous mass when people talk about something a single American may have said or done, the Muslim and Arab Americans resent being indiscriminately tarred by the "terrorist" brush just because of their looks, color, or ethnicity. Many resent the media for its obvious bias. Supporting the 'war on terrorism' meant showing programs that distorted the Muslim faith or gave a slanted picture of the culture of Islam. The "talking heads" programs rarely visited the Muslim side of the question in any relevant or pertinent way. The media campaign has had its effects, naturally. "[These days] I hear 'Better their civilians than our civilians', and I still have relatives in the Muslim world," says a worried Egyptian woman. A young Palestinian American echoes that feeling of us-versus-them alienation: "We were hit twice -- once on Sept. 11 and then after that by the way they (accuse) us. We said 'God bless America'; we donated blood. I felt like a part of the society. Now the American flag doesn't include me."
There is anxiety there, especially in the wake of the curtailment of American civil liberties in the government's attempts to find and root out 'terrorism'. All of a sudden it is possible to tap people's telephones without their knowing, people can be detained for months incommunicado without any charges being brought, military tribunals without appeal are mooted. These are all measures that many immigrant Muslims thought they had left behind when they came to the "land of the free and home of the brave." The government denies that these measures are being applied on the basis of ethnicity or religious belief, but there is still a feeling of insecurity about it all in the immigrant community.
Immigrants are people torn between two lands. They are usually fiercely loyal to the country of their residence, where they choose to live -- but they cannot and should not be asked to abandon the love they carry in their heart for those countries that bore them and that shaped their cultural and historical traditions.
Perhaps the feeling has never been better encapsulated than in a song called Anthem from the musical "Chess," a gem of a show which had a too-short run compared with something like "Cats." When I, the immigrant, heard the last verse of that song, it spoke to me, and called to my own divided spirit which dwells forever torn between so many places I have loved:
And you wonder will I leave her -- but how?
Part I of this essay was published in the past rendition, April 8, 2002.
Celebration of Krsna Slava, a deeply-rooted Serbian custom
Chess Lyrics (including Anthem)
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Last January, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2002. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This Week's Internal Links
SCENES OF WAR, A Glimpse Behind The Curtain Of Silence - by Gregory Elich
Orwellian Inversion, Or Just Another Day At The New York Times? - by Stephen Gowans
Make A Sign - by Michael Stowell
Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering, Pinky? - by Deck Deckert
Democracy Ver. 7.2 - by Lance Bauscher
The American "Dream" - by Stevan Konstantinovic
A Whispered Light - Poem by Sandy Lulay
War Is Peace - by George Orwell (Book Excerpt)
Alma Hromic on Swans
Essays published in 2002 | 2001
On the Anniversary (September 2000)
Subject: Into Myth (September 2000)
Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia (April 2000)