I am American. I feel American. I’m so American that if you cut me open I think I’d bleed red, white, and blue. When I was younger I struggled with my identity because my parents and grandparents hailed from Sri Lanka, but no longer. When younger I felt neither here nor there, but now I feel fully here. I am fully American. And, the events of a couple weeks ago reminded me that I am also Sri Lankan. The two are not a contradiction.
I believe it was Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, who in Democracy in America first wrote on a unique attribute of American identity: he observed that an American could be fully American while also retaining an identity from abroad. Americans in his view had a sort of double identity, which was different and distinct from having a shared identity.
Say someone were an immigrant from Italy. It wasn’t that the person was part Italian and part American; it was that the person was both Italian and American. One could be wholly American while also Italian. To be wholly Italian and wholly American was in itself wholly American. We are, after all, the nation of immigrants and zero sum games are not to our liking. Some misunderstand this today.
Bobby Jindal was criticized saying in a speech that we needed to stop labeling people as Indian-American or Chinese-American or Italian-American; instead, he said, it’s time we start calling ourselves Americans. The media and many on the left were primed to hate anything Jindal said due to his political and religious views, as a Republican and devout Catholic respectively, but his point couldn’t have rung truer to me. Jindal’s critics misunderstood his point.
The critics claim he was whitewashing and suggesting people reject their ethnic identity. It’s an easy claim to make about a guy named Piyush who goes by Bobby but that’s neither what he said nor anything implied by his words. A world of cheap political punches at people you disagree with, it can be hard to appreciate the earnestness of his point.
Jindal’s message was one of inclusion, not exclusion, as his core point was that no matter our color or ethnic origin we can all be fully American. What Jindal was saying wasn’t new; it has been true since the days of Tocqueville, though I wish we’d acknowledge it more often. I’m acknowledging it now and am proud to be an American who is also a bit Sri Lankan.
Sri Lankan is known to some as the teardrop isle due to its shape and position relative to India. Sadly the name has taken on a second meaning for most of Sri Lanka’s history. It was hardly a decade ago that the nation’s violent civil war ended. Conversations about bombings and assassination attempts, often targeting friends and relatives, were the norm when I was growing up. We thought that was all over but the teardrops are back, and reminded me of who I am.
I haven’t identified as being Sri Lankan for most of my life. I know a bit Sri Lanka from having visited a couple times, and more from listening to my grandparents, uncles, and parents talk about the island and its culture. I speak basic Sinhalese, but know very little about what life in Sri Lanka is like. I’m pretty detached from the place and would have said my family’s ancestral roots from there are an important but not central part of my identity. But, perhaps I’ve been underestimating that a bit.
When I heard news of the bombs, a bit after midnight during a night out in New York City, I was immediately devastated. It was as-if someone had attacked my hometown in Maryland. It didn’t feel like an attack on ‘them’ — it felt like an attack me. Those were my people. This feeling struck me, and was unexpected. and was revealing.
My reaction made me feel Sri Lankan in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever felt before. What it tells me is that I am Sri Lankan, too. Maybe just a little bit now, and my parents more-so. It’s more likely that not that my kids won’t be Sri Lankan at all, in the way that third or fourth generation descendants of Italians aren’t really Italian anymore. But I still am. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it seems important.
-the man with the lion tattoo