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Borders & Heritage

Fifty Nifty United States: A Citizenship Story

November 19, 2015

“Fifty nifty United States from the 13 original colonies ….”

This is the song that was stuck in my head as I stood in the FedEx office putting together all the required materials for my United States Naturalization application. The giddiness and excitement had caught me completely by surprise. I had resided in the country for 28 years and had felt like an American for at least half of that time, despite being a green card holder. I had viewed getting my citizenship as a formality for “officially” becoming an American, and of course, gaining the right to vote. Yet I felt so excited that day that I sang the 50 states song all the way to work from the FedEx office. Perhaps getting my citizenship was more than just a formality and I couldn’t wait to get my U.S. passport. Reflecting back, it was a long journey getting to this point though.

I was born in India and moved to Cleveland, Ohio when I was 9 years old. I had known for about a year that my family was going to move to “Amreeka” but I had no idea what that actually meant. I knew that my grandfather was worried about the political climate in Punjab, India at the time. The fallout from Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards and the ongoing separatist movement in Punjab had made India unsafe for Sikhs in the 80s. My father’s farm was on the other side of the city from our house, and I remember we would all wait by the window until we saw him pull up in the tractor and breathe a sigh of relief, especially on days when curfew had been enforced due to shootings or other unrest.

Kiran Dhillon (center) and her family in India.

My dad’s sister had been living in the United States since the mid-70s and had filed paperwork for us to immigrate since the early 80s. After anxiously waiting for the better part of a decade to receive our invitation to the U.S., it took only a few months for us to leave the only home we had ever known. Despite the dangers in India, I know it was an incredibly difficult decision for my parents to leave everything familiar for a new country with very different customs and ways of life.

Within a few days, I went from being one of the popular kids in my grade and school to being a complete outsider with a strange accent and strange way of doing things. Over time, my accent slowly disappeared and I made lots of American friends, but those changes didn’t alter that feeling of not belonging.

One year after moving to the United States, Dhillon and her family members celebrate a birthday in Toronto.

It wasn’t until my first (and only) trip back to India 11 years later that the feeling would change. I had just finished college and decided to go on a trip with my dad. I was so excited! We spent the first two days in the hustle and bustle of New Delhi before going “home” to Punjab.

Though reconnecting with family we hadn’t seen for years was great, the experience was far from the homecoming I had expected. The place that I had expected to feel so familiar, didn’t feel like home at all. And though I dressed in a traditional Punjabi salwar-kameez, people treated me like a foreigner. Sadly, my once fluent Punjabi now resembled that of my ABCD, or American-Born-Confused-Desi (“Desi” is a slang term referring to people from South Asian countries) friends, with a healthy interjection of “Okay” and “Yeah.”

Once again I was an outsider with a strange accent and a strange way of doing things. When I questioned customs pertaining to religion or the roles of women in the household, I was seen as rude or disrespectful. On the opposite spectrum, people thought the questions I was asking were cute or funny — I just couldn’t say the right thing. I missed the openness with which we can talk about almost anything in America. Though I enjoyed the trip, the culture shock I experienced was completely unexpected!

After returning home to the U.S., I went through a sort of identity crisis — confused about where I belonged and how I saw myself.

Dhillon with her family in the United States.

It took me a while to understand, but I finally realized that accepting a place as home was more about a decision I needed to make and less about others accepting me or making me feel at home. I had spent my youth hanging on to India as home — I hadn’t realized how much of an American I had become. And despite its imperfections, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world.

My need for holding on to my Indian identity was borne out of living in a close-knit family, and as is the case for many immigrants, a fear of losing integral aspects of a cultural heritage.

The turning point for me was moving away from home to Seattle for graduate school soon after that impressionable visit to India. It was the first time I only had to worry about myself, which felt selfish at first, but I soon learned to call it “self-loving.“ I loved the taste of American independence that accompanied a focus on individuality! I wasn’t afraid of being labeled “too American” anymore. I was proud of it. I soon learned that I didn’t have to choose to be one or the other — I was a good mix, loving my American individuality with a healthy appreciation for the close familial bonds of my Indian culture. I finally could stop questioning who I was or where I belonged.

Kiran Dhillon (center) and her immediate family, present day.

As I sat in the auditorium along with people from 15 other countries at the Seattle Office of Homeland Security, waiting to take the oath to officially become an American, I felt an enormous tide of emotion well up inside me. President Obama came on the screen and talked about the hard work and sacrifice it took for us to be there and how we should feel not only pride but a sense of duty to our new country. It might sound overly sentimental, but I felt it. I also registered some sadness at not being an Indian anymore, but most of the emotion I was feeling was indeed pride! I couldn’t wait to pull out the small American flag in the packet I had been handed and wave it at the end of the ceremony. The official told us that the only office higher in the land than President was that of citizen. “We the people,” begins the Constitution. We the people, indeed! I had finally come home.

Dr. Kiran Dhillon is a scientist at Fred Hutch where she studies chemotherapy resistance in breast and ovarian cancers. She has a Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of Washington (Department of Genome Sciences) and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Western Washington University. In addition to being passionate about science, Kiran also enjoys volunteering for Tasveer, a local South Asian film and art organization. She recently directed the tenth Seattle South Asian Film Festival.

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