A Country of Immigrants
Through the experiences of talking to my mother, who was born and raised and Ukraine, I came to learn an important lesson on what it means to be "American".
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” -The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus
America is called “the country of immigrants”. Only 2% of the population of the United States is Native American and the rest are not of American descent. “No other country in the world has such a diversified population as the US,” says my mom, an immigrant from Ukraine. An “American” is someone who is engraved into American culture but because of how diverse we are, there are a multitude of definitions. But where do we see immigrants in that vague definition of an “American”? Immigrants have their own culture and therefore may never be able to understand or assimilate into American culture, but since we have such a strong fundamental belief that “all men are created equal”, do we treat non-Americans or immigrants with the same equality as “Americans”?
The word “American” is complex and something that is truly different for every single person. For me, an American is someone who a) lives or has lived here, b) believes and enforces our core beliefs that all men are created equal, and c) is able to adapt and accept cultures, including the cultures created in America itself, because we are a country of immigrants. I was born and raised in the United States in the same suburb with the same people my entire life. For my friends, who are also born in America, an American is someone who’s, “loud and proud” for their country and “calls America their home”. For someone else like my mom, an American is “a person who was born in the US or brought here as a child, …[and had] the influence of American life.”
My mom, as stated before, was born and raised in Ukraine, during the Soviet Union. She has lived in America for 24 years, has been happily married to an American man, and has two kids, born and raised in America. She graduated Wayne State University with a Masters degree in Computer Science, speaks three different languages, and has become an American citizen, but she claims she’s not an American. My mom has a pretty thick accent and people sometimes have to ask me what she’s saying because they may not understand her completely. I didn’t really notice that my mom had an accent until third grade when she came into my class and was doing some work for my teacher. Everyone in class came up to me and said, “Where is she from?” “What is she saying?” “I didn’t know your mom wasn’t American.” I’ve never been asked these questions before about my mom and I was confused as to why people cared so much. I’m sure that if my other friend’s moms came in and worked, they wouldn’t receive the same questions and accusations. I lived with her my whole life and never really noticed it or thought it was that big of a deal. People thought it was so interesting that my mom was foreign, even though she was born in such an irrelevant country like Ukraine. Most kids at that age didn’t even know Ukraine was a country, so often times I would just say she was from Russia because it was easier to explain where that was. It was just the big, giant country with the big, bad communists.
When I interviewed my mom and asked her about how people treated her, she said, “most people are very friendly” and she views most of her daily life as similar to those of a “true born American”. Although, my mom says that it’s natural for people to ask her where she’s from because of her thick accent; sometimes the accent can deter people away. “In my professional life, every time I have a new client, I have to prove to them that I am a good computer programer.” People may not understand her and that may lead them to underestimate her, even though she’s one of the smartest people I know. She’s assimilated into American lifestyle and, although she is treated with respect and equality like other citizens of America, she still doesn’t view herself as an American. The friendliness she experiences always brings up questions like, “Where are you from?” or “Do you know this person I know from Ukraine?”. This forces her to remember that she’s from another country. She’s Ukrainian. That’s all that people will be able to see with her accent and way of communicating because that’s the first thing that many people are going to notice about her when she introduces herself. It’s not them trying to be rude, it’s just another conversation starter. But this constant reminder that she must be from somewhere else may be why my mom is never going to be able to call herself “American”.
After the experience of talking to my mom and watching her my whole life, I’ve learned that being an American isn’t always the number one priority. Maybe since a lot of us have been born and raised in America, not considering yourself “American” is sad. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of the greatest country in the world? My mom does feel accepted in the United States but still calls herself an immigrant because that’s what she is. She is an immigrant. That’s not a bad thing. It’s something she should be proud of. She has built a new and better life for herself in a country away from a “suffocating” socialist society. Although our country doesn’t always understand or accept immigrants, and sometimes turns away from them, like it or not, we’re still a country of immigrants. Immigrants won’t always be “Americans” but is that a bad thing? Being an American and being proud of America are two different things. You can still love your country from the outside.
“I am still an immigrant from Ukraine and always will be.” -Svetlana Pacifico