Learning to be an American, one generation at a time

It’s been more than 20 years since my daughter weathered an early identity crisis after I broke the news to her: we are Americans. 

“I am not!” she said indignantly. My three-year-old did not understand exactly what an American was, but she didn’t care for the sound of it — perhaps because it sounded a bit like hurricane or captain, as in “pirate captain.”

“Oh, but you are,” I said. “You were born right here in Liberal, and that is in Kansas, and Kansas is in the United States of America. That’s the name of our country: America. So, you are an American. And your little brother is, too.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” muttered the almost-two-year-old.  He wasn’t going to go quietly into this strange-sounding category of “American.” A modified session on U.S. history was in order. We started with simple things: colors, stars, a map. A demonstration of the Pledge of Allegiance was a big hit. 

A few days later, my children had reconciled themselves to their nationality and were, in fact, excited about celebrating its birthday. It helped that celebrations include cake and ice cream, balloons, all the basic ingredients needed for preschoolers to have fun.

This would be a minor, somewhat amusing anecdote, end of story — unless you stop to remember my grandparents. 

They, too, were Americans. For them, however, the designation required more than birth and childhood explanations. They earned the name the old-fashioned way, by homing in on a goal that required courage for the duration.

Grandpa and Grandma Seth emigrated to this country from India in the mid-1950s. They left a prosperous home near Calcutta, complete with house servants and the special privileges and status of English colonial life, to live simply in Peoria, Ill., in a walk-up apartment that boasted no luxuries.

My grandfather, the CEO of a steam train rail car plant, took up hourly-wage work at a department store warehouse. My grandmother, who’d whiled away the hot Indian days with knitting, mah-jongg and charity work, learned to make club sandwiches in the store cafeteria. 

One memorable day in late summer, Grandma and her twin sons (one of them my father) made an anxious trip to the federal courthouse in Peoria. Dad, a teenager at the time, recalls wearing a bow tie and sport coat, both specially purchased for the occasion. My grandmother had even parted with the dollars for a rare new dress. They’d lived in the U.S. for five years, and were ready to become citizens.

Grandma was nervous. Her sons had drilled her on American history facts at the kitchen table, and she had carefully followed all the rules to keep their family paperwork in order. Still, the prospect of failing the exam was frightening.

I never knew my grandmother, yet I am affected deeply at the thought of her worries after she had already traveled so far. When she boarded an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic, she had no solid picture of what lay on the other shore. She stretched herself far past the points of comfort to reach for something not visible  All of this, she did for the sake of her childrens’ futures. 

She placed her hopes in the destination she had selected. America, she knew, was the place where people had a fair chance to make their lives better. It was the home of freedom and democracy, capitalism, honest government. (Anyone who’s lived in a place like India, where you have to bribe the postal workers to mail your letters, knows the value of that.) Surely, her hopes would not be in vain, her courage would not be wasted.

No one took pictures that day, nor was there a big celebration when Eileen Viola Seth, Robert Paul Thomas Seth and Richard Peter Trevor Seth became citizens of the United States. In one sense, that long-ago day passed inconsequentially, just one more set of hours that holds the life-happenings of millions of people. 

My grandparents are dead now, passed away from a life much humbler than their beginnings. You can’t say that’s the end of the story, though, because my life and my brother’s life and our cousins’ lives and the lives of our children, and, someday, their children’s too, are a testament to the rightness of my grandmother’s choice. 

Our ability to live in a house with air conditioning, to live in a town with paved streets and a police force; our freedom to worship, think and speak as we choose; the good meals we enjoy thanks to the hard work we perform; the ease to have fun, to feel amusement as we instruct our offspring about the meaning of the word “American;” all of it, we owe to her and my grandfather and their courage to leave the old life for something best described as a challenge. Certainly, it was no cakewalk.

Yet my grandmother’s fears on citizenship exam day were misplaced: she had learned American history, she had worked hard, and she loved this country. The judge shook her hand and welcomed her in.

It was, after all, hers: the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Two-decade postscript:

When I wrote this newspaper column as a young mother, I could not have imagined the roiling sense of upheaval that marks Independence Day 2020. The two children I indoctrinated with classic immigrant patriotism were soon joined by a little sister. And those three young biracial Black Americans have navigated complications that far exceeded the simplicity of the stories they grew up hearing. In the United States of 1998, we had just begun to grasp the technological transformation that was soon to come. We (mostly) trusted our government, and while ideological and political differences were marked, the young mother I was felt certain her children would continue to ascend in a changing, improving society. After all, the Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, before my own birth.

Fast-forward to a 21st-century summer marred by COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, the caging of small children whose parents hoped only to replicate an American story like my own family’s, and uneasiness about a Presidential election that might or might not be decided by foreign agents. As I woke on July 4 and realized that yes, it really is Independence Day, I thought of my Seth grandparents as I always do on the nation’s  birthday. And I asked myself the question: Is this column still true?

Certainly, the origin story is true. My grandparents’ optimistic beliefs about the new country they would come to call home were, perhaps, a bit on the rosy side. It was, after all, 1954, the height of the Eisenhower/J.Edgar Hoover propaganda push to frame Americans’ sense of self and purpose in the world. Our family fortune changed dramatically when India gained independence. The Anglo-Indian (sometimes called “Eurasian”) Diaspora was unavoidable, and I’m thankful the Seths chose the United States.

When we reconcile the present with history, and our own evolving understanding of historic events, some things remain unchanged. Love and courage, thankfully, are two of the strongest.

rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.