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by Katy Sundararajan
Back in college was when I first realized I might be mistaken for an Asian, at least in print.
As “Katy Wing,” I received assorted pieces of Asian mail, including a lucrative scholarship offer one time, simply because my last name had the right ring to it. I also showed up once for a job interview where they had been expecting an Asian. Now, married to my south Indian husband I can still, as “Katy Sundararajan,” be mistaken for an (east) Asian, at least in print. I know that a few of you have probably read my blog posts and wondered where in the world I came from. In case the printed word fooled you, I can assure you I am really just an average, white American.
I met my husband about fifteen years ago while we were both students at Western Theological Seminary. For as long as I have known him, there have been people who have assumed that JP was American. There are probably a whole variety of reasons that people have assumed this over the years, not the least of which being his comfortability and natural adaptation within American culture. Though he has a bit of an accent and the typically darker skin and shiny black hair of his south Indian heritage, many people have been able to see JP fitting right in with the rest of us, like he grew up in the US.
In July, just shy of twenty years living in the US with a visa or green card, JP became a US citizen. This was truly a twenty-year decision in the making, made most difficult because of the fact that India does not recognize dual citizenship. I often reflected on the fact that as naturally as JP fit into life here, he was all the more at home, naturally, in India. (The first time I went to India, I was shocked to meet a brand new JP, or so it seemed. This one with a stronger accent, a sixth sense about crossing the horns-a-honking, scooters-speeding, cows-a-wandering streets of India, and the astounding ability to clean his plate with nary a utensil.) JP belonged in India.
I never felt any desire to pressure JP into becoming a US citizen. I saw how he fit here. I saw that he belonged there.
JP himself would do greater justice to shedding light on his decision-making process. Perhaps I will let him tell you that part of the story some other time. I will tell you, rather, about the day that JP became naturalized. It was a little odd that the naturalization ceremony was to take place mid-day on a Wednesday while we were chaplain-ing at a week of high school camp in far, northern Michigan. We drove all morning, arriving just in time for JP to get in line to register. The kids and I went back out to the car to eat a light lunch and then re-entered the Grand Rapids Museum to find and save some seats for the ceremony.
I came around the corner, scanning for my husband in the line of people all waiting to become official US citizens. Oh, to see the line, chaotic in its many colored dresses and assorted skin tones. Somehow the emotion was both subdued and exuberant. In this line, JP blended in. This was the line to America, and just like always he was blending in, naturally a part of things. This is how America is, right? The melting pot? Even the judge who presided over the swearing-in ceremony shared this lovely quote from Ronald Reagan,
I received a letter just before I left office from a man. I don’t know why he chose to write it, but I’m glad he did. He wrote that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan and other countries. But he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.
This is almost absurdly unique. Anyone can blend in here. We can lose our kindred in a line of people of varying skin tone and cultural dress because in American we all fit in, we blend in making words like belonging and togetherness look different than they might in other countries.
A lot of people have chided JP on choosing this moment to become a US citizen. Despite the “togetherness” that I just praised, our country is struggling with a sickening and desperate plague of racial profiling and its subsequent pain. And, at a time when everyone and anyone is blathering anxiously about the upcoming elections and the preposterous state of political affairs in the US, people sincerely questioned JP’s decision to choose the US now. I get it. I too feel the unrest of participating in this country, at this time. But for JP, the time was now. The variables all pointed to this time, not another more perfect time. And, all of the people in that lovely, vibrant line agreed.
When we arrived back at camp the night of JP’s swearing in ceremony, the campers rose to the occasion as JP sauntered into center camp. “U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A!” they chanted. Over and over, until every last person at the camp knew we had returned, they thundered “U.S.A!” Most of these kids were not particularly patriotic, but they sure knew how to celebrate belonging, and make a person feel accepted into the fold.
Yes, JP had the choice to become an American citizen. I suppose that many of us do not have a choice. There is a lot that we take for granted in the simplicity of our citizenship. Interestingly, JP is in India right now, for the first time in his life having applied for a visa to visit his home country. I’m certain he feels right at home. Forever, India will appear in JP’s face. India will be in his heart. I also know that when he returns to the US, he will be solidly at home. He is welcome and he belongs here. JP is so skilled at blending in that I will just have to watch and see how being (officially) American changes or shapes him in the years to come.
(As a final note, I imagine some of you are just dying to know how to say my last name. So just for kicks and giggles, let me include my handy pronunciation hint. Simply say all of the syllables like this “soon-da-ra-ra-jan,” taking note of the “ra! ra!” in the middle, and then try to say it as fast as you can. Say it out loud. It is way more fun.)
Katy Sundararajan is the International Student Advisor and ThM program administrator at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan. Thanks, Katy.