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Iyengar: Belonging neither here, nor there

It wouldn't be Independence Day without fireworks launched

It wouldn't be Independence Day without fireworks launched from the Brooklyn Bridge and three East River barges. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Henny Ray Abrams

I've had a love-hate relationship with New York City, as I'm sure a lot of people do, and after a year of living here the city's really started to grow on me. But a couple of weeks ago, I encountered something (or rather, someone) that dampened my enthusiasm.

I was walking along the Hudson River looking for a restroom after spending the morning kayaking, and found one on the boardwalk by Pier 96. I saw an older white man standing nearby with a bicycle, and asked whether he was waiting to use the restroom. He said: "We call it a line in this country."

When I explained that a line is not an exclusively American phenomenon, he said: "You don't look like you're from around here. I'm from New York; we don't like outsiders."

I wish I had had my American passport to wave in his face, but all I had was my brown skin and my Indian accent in which I told him as politely as I could to get the hell out of my sight.

This happened a few days after I went to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to watch the Fourth of July fireworks on the East River. It was my first time at the extravagant display celebrating the freedom that we, the United States of America, hold so dear.

I squeezed through the crowd to get a better view as my two Indian friends struggled to keep up, their faces a mix of amusement and exasperation. "The American has to get his Independence Day fix," one of them said, smirking.

Both incidents got me thinking: Am I really American? The old man with the bike assumed I wasn't. My passport and birth certificate say I am, but not much else does.

Allow me to explain. I was born in Tarrytown, but spent 17 of my 22 years in Pune, India, before returning to the United States a year ago for graduate school.

My parents, immigrants to America, decided to return to India in 1996 for several reasons, including a desire to be closer to their home and family, and to raise my sister and I in the sociocultural setting they grew up in.

But underlying it all, my mom says, was a sense of patriotism -- a desire to use their talents and capabilities to give back to their motherland. In fact, this feeling stopped them just short of becoming U.S. citizens after spending more than a decade here.

I became a U.S. citizen by default, but after spending most of my life in India, I don't look, sound or really feel "American." I've always found myself stuck between two worlds, a unique situation where the answer to the questions "Are you American?" and "Are you Indian?" seem to be the same: "Well, kind of."

As the United States tries to make sense of an immigration crisis, with an influx of more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors streaming in from various countries, I can't help but wonder where I fit into the narrative of American immigration.

My parents migrated to and stayed in this country legally, but I wonder what American-born children of immigrants here illegally go through, and what would happen to them if their parents were deported. I also wonder how they define their own identities, and more important, how this country defines them.

Am I taking jobs and opportunities from "real" Americans, or am I a "real" American myself? What is a "real" American, anyway?

You decide.

Rishi Iyengar, a recent graduate of Columbia University, is an intern for Newsday.


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