I used to say those words every morning, five days a week, in homeroom, standing along a bunch of Polish and Irish-American kids, mostly second or third generation. I was born in Sri Lanka, but we came to America when I was just two years old, and I grew up in Connecticut, in a school where I was the only South Asian kid.
I learned all the patriotic songs,
[sung] My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died
but of course those songs didn't apply to me. My ancestors didn't die here -- my ancestors lived and died in Sri Lanka, for two thousand years, since the Tamils first came across from India, right around 100 B.C. Two thousand years -- that's a long time to live in one place; those are deep roots. My family had lived in one place for so long that our relatives were scattered all across the island -- everyone knew everyone else; everyone was related to everyone else, one way or another. When my parents came to America, they never planned to stay. They'd work for a few years, make some money, and go home. They never planned to become Americans.
[sung] I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy, a Yankee Doodle do or die
Do or die. Maybe they would have gone home, just as they'd planned. If the troubles hadn't broken out in July of '93, thousands of Tamils killed by their neighbors. My grandmother's home was fire-bombed, burned to the ground; if she hadn't taken refuge in a nearby convent, she would have been killed. My aunts and uncles fled the country, sought sanctuary in Canada, which was kind to refugees. Eventually they came to America, and like my parents, gave up the dream of returning to the homeland. They became Americans, and if they thought of Sri Lanka, they thought only to send a little money to 'the boys' back home, the freedom fighters, who were fighting for a Tamil homeland, for liberation from oppression, for the right to live free.
[sung] O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed, at the twilight's last gleaming. Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight
Of course, the shine on those Tamil freedom fighters soon tarnished. With the September 11 attacks, America reclassified various groups around the world as terrorists, the Tamil Tigers among them. And to be fair, the boys weren't such shining examples anymore; they had begun using child soldiers and suicide bombers. My parents were afraid to go back, afraid that we would be killed, or co-opted into what had become an increasingly dirty war. The chains that tied us to our homeland, that once seemed so strong, had grown thin as thread, easy to snap.
[sung] This land is your land; this land is my land, from California, to the New York island, from the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.
I've lived all across America -- East Coast, West Coat, Salt Lake City, Chicago. You'd think that by now I would have embraced America. My mother naturalized as an American citizen; eventually my father did as well. But I -- resisted.
It was a passive form of resistance; I kept telling myself that I'd become a citizen soon, once I had the money to spare for the application fees -- $600 was a lot for a starving writer who was surviving on temp secretarial work. That's two months' rent! Every time a national election came around, I would curse myself for not somehow scraping together the money in time so that I could become a citizen and then vote -- but then the election would pass, and I'd forget about it again, for another four years. And then there were the citizenship requirements -- learning U.S. history all over again, maybe memorizing a bit of the constitution
[sung] We the people; in order to form a more perfect union; establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, provide the blessing of liberty, for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution, of the United States of America.
I have to become an American citizen, now that I have a daughter, born in this country to an American citizen father. Under the new provisions of the Patriot Act, if I'm ever convicted of a crime -- whether or not I actually committed one -- my green card -- my 'permanent resident card' -- will be revoked and I will be immediately deported back to Sri Lanka. No appeal, no recourse. I can't take the risk of doing that to my daughter, so I have the forms on my desk now; I am filling them out. I actually did fill them out once already, and file them, but I made errors -- despite having a Ph.D., I had trouble filling out the forms correctly -- and so they sent them back, and now I will have to fill them out again. Luckily, I can afford the doubled fees at this point. Many can't.
But it's not really about the money -- it never was. I dragged my heels for so long, but not because I didn't love America -- because I do, I really do. I choke up when I sing those patriotic songs.
[sung] O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain; for purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain
I think America is beautiful -- in its landscape, its people, its ideals. I am an American, and want to pledge allegiance to it wholeheartedly; except that my heart is, in fact, divided. There is a part of me reluctant to give up that last thread tying me to Sri Lanka; that citizenship that tells me that part of me does belong there, that reminds me that for two thousand years, my family has lived in that one unique place. Perhaps because I left so young, because my memories are few and thin, because my tie is so very tenuous, I am especially reluctant to let that thread go.
And America will demand of me that I let it go; I will have to "renounce any foreign allegiance." In World War II, the Japanese-American citizens who refused to sign a loyalty oath proclaiming that they renounced allegiance to any foreign power, were sent to jail. I wonder, for the American citizens in this audience -- would you sign such an oath, if asked? Would you be willing to go to jail, to protect your other allegiances?
To become a citizen, I will be forced to cut that thread tying me to Sri Lanka. It's only a symbol, but sometimes I think symbols are all that we are.
I started this piece with the pledge of allegiance. Most of you grew up saying it every school day. Many of my friends, otherwise good citizens, have issues with parts of the pledge now -- they're not comfortable pledging allegiance to a flag, or they're not happy that the words 'under God' are in the pledge. As American citizens, as things stand right now, you have the right to abstain from the pledge. But as World War II and the Patriot Act have shown, that right can be taken away at any moment.
Those of you who are American citizens now, or who are in the process of naturalizing, I invite you now to stand up with me, to place your hand on your heart and recite the pledge of allegiance, with full consciousness of what you are claiming, and what you may be asked to give up. Say those words with gratitude for all that is good about America, for all that it hopes and tries to be.
And if you choose to abstain -- well, be grateful that you have the option, for now.
Please stand for the pledge of allegiance.
I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, individisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Performed at SAPAC's Voices of Resistance event, 9/20/08. And yes, singing in front of a big crowd made me very nervous. But I survived, and only went off-key once or twice. :-)