What Does It Mean To Be An American in 2020?

This blogpost is written by our Co-Founder and CEO, Siran Cao. She shares her story about identity, citizenship and what America means to her.

1998: My first day of school in the United States. The day started with the Pledge of Allegiance. This was new. I hadn’t seen this kind of requirement before — every student beginning the day with a statement of loyalty to the country’s flag. I was surprised, confused. My family had moved into our tiny apartment in Pittsburgh a month ago. I wasn’t American. Was I exempt? And what was my identity, my nationality? Singaporean? Chinese? I mimed the words while mulling over my identity in my head. I was 8, lost, and in that classroom, on my first day, I cried.

2000: Election season, Bush v. Gore. Sunday. We were in church, and I was barely paying attention to the sermon until the pastor turned to the election. I sat up, as he told the eligible voters in the congregation to support Bush, because Bush didn’t support abortion the way Gore did. We went to a Chinese church, and we were a congregation of immigrants and naturalized American citizens. I was 10. And I was enraged. I walked out. My family had only lived in America for 2 years, but I was already indoctrinated by the separation of church and state. I was 10. I was nowhere close to pregnancy, but I didn’t want someone else making decisions about my body. I was furious — furious enough that my 10 year old rage manifested in the car on the way home, screaming over how inappropriate, manipulative, unconstitutional it was. The following week, we held a mock election in school. The class bully was not shy about sharing his (family’s?) political views: only “losers” voted for Gore. He jumped onto a desk to rip down Gore’s picture from the whiteboard. After school, when we were waiting for the bus, the school bully asked me whom I voted for. Instead of a verbal response, I kicked him.

2006: My mother was nervous that morning. I was nervous for her. She was on her way to take her US Citizenship test. I wanted to take it for her. I knew the questions inside out; learned civics in the classroom; loved the Supreme Court. I thought of myself as a native English speaker by that point, and I was worried about my mother’s English. And finally, I wanted to be an American. I wanted to take the test to be legitimate, to prove myself, but I was a minor. I would get citizenship by “derivation” — like a theorem or a formula — not original or of my own accord.

2008: Election night. I sat on the arm of the couch in the common room of my freshman dorm. The room was full. We were watching the election results roll in, all anticipating, filled with nervous, excited, and inspired energy. Obama’s “Yes We Can’’ speech in New Hampshire still rang in my ears. New Hampshire was important to me. I, like so many of my classmates, had spent the last year stumping; I went door to door while still living in Pittsburgh, taking busses up to New Hampshire in college that fall. I wasn’t old enough to vote yet. I just missed the cutoff, turning 18 in December. But this was the first election my mother voted in. I was so proud of her, so excited for her. When the election was called for Obama, I felt this swell of pride, a swell of tears, and I was swept up in a wave. I found myself in the green outside freshman dorms, chanting, cheering, and the wave moved into the square. The streets were filled with people, our endless hope, joy, and elation.

2016: Election night. I was in Vietnam for work, and it was the first time I felt alone watching the election results. Pennsylvania, my home state, turned red while I was in a meeting. I burst into tears. My colleagues were concerned and asked if I was sick. I shook my head, “it’s the election. Trump is going to win.” My colleagues in Vietnam didn’t understand why it was so personal, and I didn’t expect them to. But it hurt. It hurt to see my country take a turn like this. The next morning, I cried as I wrote an email about the election to my team back in New York. My team was predominantly Black and Brown, and as a leader, I wanted to be there. As a leader, I knew I needed to show my grief too, to console, to state in no unclear terms, that we believe in and we represent a much better America, that we will work for a much better America. I brought politics into the workplace, but I didn’t care. It was the right thing to do. I cried as I looked at the now infamous picture, a sea of young white men in suits and MAGA hats, celebrating in Times Square. Just 8 years ago, I was celebrating Obama’s election in that same way — in the streets, jubilant. How was this the same country?

2020: Today, Constitution Day. America is a place of contradictions. Our Constitution tells us that “All men are created equal,” but both that language and that history excluded women and people of color. And those Americans have spent over 400 years struggling for equality. America is a place of contradictions. Our Constitution tells us that “All men are created equal,” and the image that America wants to portray around the world is one in which “all men” emcompasses everyone. We can interpret “men” to mean mankind, humans, persons.

There are contradicting interpretations of that statement. Was the intent when the Constitution was written to be inclusive with “men?” It’s safe to say no, that the intent was an exclusionary one. But part of the contradiction in America, too, is that the Constitution was built to be interpreted. It’s meant to change with the times. So today, that interpretation can mean everyone. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of America. That’s the America I choose to believe in. That’s the America that’s scrappy, hopeful, gritty — the America that can produce the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal, the decades of innovation that have created our lifestyle today, the technology you’re using to read this.

That’s the America where a single mother — my single mother — can go from being a biochemist in China, to becoming a financial executive in the US. My mother had to learn a new profession in a foreign language, in a foreign land, and America allowed her to succeed against the odds. She’s the embodiment of the American dream.

And therein lies another contradiction: in this same America, my mother’s identity as an Asian woman and part of the “model minority” that works hard, doesn’t complain, is whip smart and great at math — that identity made her success possible. Because in this America, pulling herself up by her bootstraps would have been impossible had she been born Black, not Chinese.

So this same America, one that can catapult Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Stacy Abrams into our hearts, this America is still raw, still throwing protestors into unmarked vans, still, after centuries, incapable of seeing Black Americans as equals and citizens. This same America tries to disenfranchise and exclude.

America, you hurt me. You’ve brought me to tears countless times. But on this Constitution Day, I’m choosing to take that interpretation of “All men are created equal” to be inclusive. I’m choosing to work for the America that we want, that our ideals necessitate. I’m choosing to love my country. And love means expecting better, and actively working to make America better.

So I still believe in the American dream. It’s one of financial empowerment and possibility; and as for my part as an American citizen, I’m putting my skills to work to make that dream possible for everyone. It’s the optimistic view, but I’m realistic enough — we at Mirza are realistic enough — to know our role in that change: gather, create, advocate with the necessary data that can change if not hearts, then minds.

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation… dedicated to equality, empowerment, liberty, and justice for all.

Originally published at https://www.heymirza.com on September 17, 2020.

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