- We still belonged here when our hearts were torn at a parent’s illness miles away; we belonged when we knew that blowing up our mailbox by a neighborhood teenager was a summer prank and not a targeted crime.
One spring morning four years ago, my wife and I took time off work and found ourselves driving to the Roseville Skating Center. ‘Any idea how long this would take?’, she wondered. We entered the building to join a group of over 50 people already lined up to check-in. It was a motley crowd of all ages, some in their Sunday best, others in casual jeans and sweats. ‘Shouldn’t be too long’, I said. After all, having grown up in India in the last century, I was used to large crowds, lined up at railway ticket counters, at banks, to pay up utility bills. You build a lot of patience in these lines, burnish your capacity to daydream, skills in high demand in our current, hyper-connected age.
And what was another half hour after this long period of waiting. 17 years, 10 months and 14 days after entering this country on a J1 visa, my wife and I were in the line to take our oaths of American citizenship. Year after year of juggling through an alpha-numeric mosaic of J1, J2, H1 visa renewals, I-94 stamps, EADs, I-485s, and N-400s, we were ready to fully embrace the mantle of our American identity.
Within the next hour, we pledged our allegiance to the United States of America in a solemn ceremonial oath led by a judge. We received our certificates of naturalization, got our pictures holding miniature U.S. flags alongside the presiding Judge.
Now, we officially belonged.
Sense of belonging, defined as the feeling of being comfortable in a particular situation or with a particular group of people, is an unusual feeling. It doesn’t dawn upon us one fine day but gradually builds over time, getting woven into our identity, into our sense of self. Long before this official induction into the citizenry, we had begun to belong to this land:
We belonged when our American-born son was weaned on Gerber jars instead of homemade mashed food our older daughter gobbled up during her infancy before we arrived in the States. We belonged when we started hosting Super Bowl parties over drinks and nachos, our kids sought sleepovers with their American-born friends, when we walked well before sunset with blankets and folding chairs to grab a prime spot to view the July 4 fireworks.
We belonged when we joined PTOs, booster clubs for debate, camped out at boy scout events, posted proud pictures of kids’ homecomings and proms.
We belonged when we mowed our own lawns, itemized deductions on the 1040s, donated to charities, volunteered at food banks.
We belonged when we brought samosas to block parties, watered our neighbors’ plants when they were on vacation, exchanged gifts with them on Holidays.
We still belonged here when our hearts were torn at a parent’s illness miles away; when we missed births, deaths, weddings, anniversaries of our family members and childhood friends separated by the seven seas.
We belonged when, as parents of teenagers ourselves, we knew that blowing up our mailbox by a neighborhood teenager was a summer prank and not a targeted crime. We belonged when my wife and her Indian American friends morphed one of their neighborhood book club events into a Bollywood theme party. We belonged when, while oblivious of the “Brady Bunch,” I could discuss the ethical dilemmas in “Breaking Bad” with my colleagues. I knew we belonged when my colleagues became my friends, and as friends joined us to celebrate the Indian festival of Holi — all smeared alike in colors, obscuring the browns, whites and blacks underneath.
So yes, on May 14th, 2018, it was a longstanding sense of belonging we sealed with a certificate. And it is with great pride that I put up yard signs, donate, phone bank and vote in every election since, in a nation to which I officially belong.
Ajay Rawal is an Indian American physician based in the Minneapolis metro area. Aside from work and spending time with his family, he loves to hike, bike, read, and write his musings about life, politics and society at large.