I grew up everywhere and nowhere. Here’s one story, maybe the simplest: I was born in New Delhi to Indian parents, moved to Jamaica at age three and then the United States at age nine, finished my schooling and college there, became an American citizen along the way, then moved to the United Kingdom, where I started graduate school, before moving back to the United States to do my PhD. That’s the story I tell strangers who are minded to ask, in appropriately varying levels of detail.
But then what about the months where we moved back to India, between living in Jamaica and ending up in the United States? My parents bought a house – their first – not far from where my father’s parents lived in Pune and found me and my sister schools. Our six years in Jamaica became a temporary departure from a life in India. In the end, we never lived in that house, and those years in Jamaica changed significance when the United States, through various quirks of fate, became our destination instead.
What about the fact that I had my heart set on the United Kingdom for my postgraduate education, had secured funding and a place at Cambridge for my PhD after two intellectually vibrant years in England, before I made the agonizing decision to return to the United States to finish my education?
What about the fact that my heritage language, Tamil, is not widely spoken in my place of birth (New Delhi) or where my father grew up (Bombay) or where we moved before we un-moved (Pune) – that linguistic and cultural exile is a fact of life in the cobbled-together nation of India?
What about the fact that my parents have now lived in Texas for twenty-five years, that I consider it home for this reason among others, even if I spent only half my childhood and a fraction of my adulthood there?
What about the fact that I love New York? And Oxford? And Rome? That I can navigate any of these cities by sight? Even if none of these places is mine to claim, if only New York makes sense as an answer to where I’m from or where I live, what am I to do with this love?
When you grow up everywhere, you grow up nowhere at all.
My experience of this paradox led me to disavow national identity from an early age. We lived in Jamaica and we had Indian passports and then we lived in the United States and had Indian passports, and eventually green cards and American passports. Just so much paper, I liked to think.
But that wasn’t entirely true, even then.
I vividly remember watching Gandhi with my girlfriend in college. At the film’s depiction of the 1919 Amritsar massacre – when a British general ordered hundreds of peaceful protesters to be gunned down – I began to weep so violently I had to leave the room. My girlfriend was startled, but I couldn’t explain why I felt this way, why the pain of the massacre, which the British government has never apologized for, was my pain.
Around the same time, I became an American citizen in a naturalization ceremony at a courthouse near where my parents lived. In some ways, this step felt like an inevitability. My family had become reconciled to living in the United States for the long term, even grown to think of it as home. By the time of my swearing-in, my parents and sister had all become citizens already. Still, the American project seemed uglier in the Bush years, with the Patriot Act curtailing liberties at home and the mass displacement and slaughter of people who looked a lot like me abroad. Is this really what I wanted to sign up for?
Though I recall these misgivings, the naturalization ceremony itself was a joyful occasion. I remember especially the warmth of the judge, the pride in his voice when he noted how many countries of origin were represented among those being sworn in, as if this gathering was the very making of America, which, of course, it was.
Outside, in the November sun, a delegation from the League of Women Voters waited to congratulate each new citizen and to give us a welcome bag with information about how to vote. A few months later, I took them up on this invitation to cast my ballot in the presidential primary for a mixed-race man, who had a Kenyan father and grew up partly in Indonesia.
Of course, my own experience of migration is far from the norm, in America or globally. I can only pray that the ongoing crisis at the United States–Mexico border, the suffering of so many desperate people, is met with the same force of humanity, the same grace, that I myself have encountered.
All that said, my early impulses toward cosmopolitanism – and perhaps also the impossibility of earnest expression in late modernity – have left me vaguely embarrassed of my love of country.
I do not feel anything when I see the American flag, except when I see it in a church, at which point I feel indignation at this invitation to idolatry. Our national anthem, with its awkward octave-and-a-half range and tepid poetry, leaves me cold, except when pop singers butcher it with flying leaps and dramatic pauses (inevitably demonstrating their inferiority to the singularly gifted Whitney Houston), which makes me wish we would do away with the custom altogether. I love apple pie – in fact, I perfected my recipe around the time I was naturalized – but still prefer cricket, which I grew up playing, to baseball.
Symbols tend not to move me much, then. Where, then, does my love of country reside?
I recently went to Chicago with my wife, where I lived for five years and which was the first American city I saw as a small child. (My family, oddly enough, is very Midwestern: I have relatives in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana; a beloved uncle was born in Iowa.) She’d never been, and I quickly realized that in trying to explain what I loved about Chicago, I was really trying to explain why it is such a quintessentially American city.
Yes, there are wonderful museums and restaurants and cocktail bars, but it is Lake Michigan’s vastness meeting Daniel Burnham’s lakefront parks that defines the city, a public expression of a spirit of optimism that goes missing in so much of the so-called Old World. And in the conflict of its diagonal streets, the legacy of the still-useful Native American trails that once converged at the waterfront, with its relentlessly overlaid grid, the sorrow of the country’s founding in the displacement of the land’s original inhabitants is brought viscerally into one’s experience. But none of this can really be explained, only shown.
Love of country is, I think, best understood once we first consider that we can prefer ideas or generalities but only really love individual things. And if this or any other country is anything, it is a singular place, albeit born of the vast complexity of its history, its people, and its ideals. Yet, as a geographically minded person might point out, one cannot be in the United States without being in a specific place (compare Vatican City or Monaco). It is in experiences, like mine of the distinctive Americanness of Chicago, that a love of country becomes possible.
That is why patriotic pieties tend to ring hollow. It is not just that an impersonal state is demanding our allegiance to facilitate its political authority, though that may well be true. It is that a generic call to offer fealty or respect can carry no weight on its own. Just as our parents demand respect as our parents, not as someone’s parents, our country cannot really be loved from behind the veil of a flag.
Such symbols, at their best, call to mind the singular experiences each of us is meant to have. What is the Statue of Liberty without the experience of radical welcome? What is the anthem without the experience of social solidarity? The shattering of shared experience in our time – and, of course, the misuse of state authority in corruption and violence – is responsible for sapping the symbolic representations of a nation of their power.
But a political community, even one of the size and scope of most modern nations, is not simply a state, that is, a system of power and the distribution of authority. A political community, as Aristotle argued, is its people, its citizens, organized by a shared view of what must be done and by whom in order for this very organization to persist. Each encounter with our fellow citizens – which, for most of us most of the time, will be in our neighborhoods and our homes, our houses of worship and our workplaces – offers the possibility of a renegotiation of this shared view. For that reason, each encounter contains the whole possibility of the nation, understood as the political community.
I sometimes joke that I love France but dislike the French (a slight to my French friends whom, in fact, I love). The joke is the product of some real experiences in that country, but the joke only works because it would be absurd to hold these attitudes at the same time. I do not mean to be speaking of the landscape, after all.
However absurd these attitudes are in relation to a distant place, they are all the more impossible when it comes to your own. To love America is to love Americans. That doesn’t mean loving every American, of course, or even loving the specific qualities that preponderate among them. But it does mean an openness to learning something about yourself in inquiring into the history and traditions and prevailing culture of this vast and hybrid nation. (Another thesis: loving is more about being known than about knowing.)
A native New Yorker once said to me that New Yorkers aren’t really Americans. I tend to agree, insofar as this openness is in short supply in my city, at least in Manhattan, where I live. Although Texans like to gripe about Oklahomans, the ribbing is usually good-natured (unless the topic is football or barbeque) and grounded in mutual recognition. Tell someone in Manhattan you’re from Texas and you’re likely to be asked the sorts of questions that Americans get a bad reputation for asking when they travel abroad (Are there trees? Do people wear cowboy hats? Is everyone dumb and racist?). Then again, I love New York, too, and while it isn’t yet home, it is most certainly my city.
A question that has probably occurred to most naturalized citizens is, “When did I become American (or Brazilian or Australian or what-have-you)?” In my case, it wasn’t when I moved or when I became a citizen, formally. It wasn’t when I shed my Jamaican accent and gained an American, though not especially Texan, one. It wasn’t when I first saw the Continental Divide or the Grand Canyon. Whenever it was, I suspect it happened when I wasn’t looking.
In his extraordinary lecture and essay “On Not Going Home,” the literary critic James Wood describes his strange realization (after two decades in the United States) that he has American children, their ordinary school events and other activities gaining a “light veil of alienation,” an alienation that also accompanies him when he goes back to visit his native Britain. I feel this alienation, too, never quite American enough to pass as one, either at home or abroad. I have come to see this feeling as a welcome one, allowing the distance for a loving gaze as well as a necessary scrutiny.
Somehow, I chose America and America chose me. This affinity, as much as the romantic ones in Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften, lies beyond analysis and justification. It allows for disappointment and dismay. It is visceral, a matter of sense and sentiment. It is, in other words, the stuff of life.