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Look at Me

Am I American enough for you? asks Uzodinma Iweala.

Am I American enough for you? asks Uzodinma Iweala

I'm tired of Americans questioning my "Americanness."In March of last year, I flew into the United States via London on British Airways. After landing in Washington, D.C., I found myself face to face with a U.S. Customs Service officer. His shoulders slouched. His belly hung over a belt heavy with a radio, shiny handcuffs, and a black gun. Even his handle bar mustache seemed to sag."Passport," he said, without looking at my face.I handed him my navy blue American passport with its golden eagle stamped on the cover. He opened it, flipped through, and then said rather rudely, "So why are you here?""Excuse me?" I asked, unsure of how to respond to his question. "Uh... I live here?""Look, son. Why are you here?" he asked again with more of an edge to his voice. My passport quivered in his hand.I tried again, "I live here."It's only when his fleshy fingers slid along his belt and came to rest just atop the black handgrip of his gun that I realized he was asking a very different question. He had seen the name of a foreigner stamped inside an American passport and wondered why I had citizenship in his country.On the surface, the immigrant or children of immigrants from the developing world may seem to face the same challenges as the wave of European immigrants who came before us. Differences in language and culture provide an obstacle to assimilation into mainstream American society, but there is one issue that makes our immigrant experiences profoundly different than those of European immigrants of the early twentieth century: the way we look. Unlike white Europeans, many of whom look just like white Americans, the African, Asian, Latin American or Middle Eastern immigrant, for the most part, does not fit America's picture of itself. Thus we have a much harder time gaining acceptance into this supposedly welcoming country.America definitely has difficulty accepting non-white Americans as real Americans. No matter how long you have lived in the States, if you don't have white skin, the public automatically assumes you aren't fully American. During the 1998Winter Olympic Games, MSNBC ran a headline announcing Tara Lipinski's win over Michelle Kwan: "American Beats out Kwan." Never mind that Michelle Kwan was born in Torrence, California. Never mind that she had never lived in any other country. What makes Tara Lipinski more American than Michelle Kwan? Both come from immigrant families. Both represented the United States very well in the Olympics. And yet the media, which ran a similar headline during the 2002 Salt Lake City games, seems to have a different idea.On a personal note,I have been told countless times, when I've been critical of the United States, "If you don't like it, you should just go back to where you came from." My response: "You mean to Potomac, Maryland?"Granted, new immigrant families complicate matters by holding on to cultures and traditions from abroad. I have often heard other Americans say of people like me, "They don't want to be like us. They just want to use what we have without giving anything back." While I will be the first to admit that immigrant communities need to reach out to other Americans, it's a little absurd to expect us to do all the work. As has been said before, the ideas that we bring from abroad help to make America great. Furthermore, the majority of immigrants who come to the United States, whether legally or illegally, make major contributions to the country, economically and otherwise. The founder of Ebay - now an American - was born in Paris to Iranian parents. And how many immigrants have become citizens after giving their lives fighting for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many immigrants would do that for any other country?Immigration is a wonderful thing that must, of course, be managed properly. I understand that all countries need to regulate the influx of people. But America is strong because its policy of acceptance has allowed different people with different languages, cultures, and ideas to exist together in society.So to get back to the officer and his question: "Why are you here?"I said, "Sir. I'm tired. I'm hungry. I just want to go home."