I am an American.
Because when the principal told me to take off my earrings and stop using the yellow ruled paper, I told her I wouldn’t.
Because I was free.
I told her what difference did it make the color of the paper on which I was writing compositions and formulas that were earning me excellent marks. I liked the yellow paper, and the earrings I had made myself.
Trapped between the walls of Soviet indoctrination, I was free.
And I knew that of all the dreams I’d ever dreamed or would ever dare to dream, the one I was most certainly meant to see come true was to cross the ocean and fall into the arms of the Statue of Liberty.
My uncle and my American aunt sent me bubble gum, and ruled paper, socks with plastic fruit fringes, and erasers that were shaped like things, everything colorful, everything amusing, starkly contrary to the mandatory uniformity of everything in our lives from our notebooks to our black and brown uniforms, from our red pioneer scarves to the star shaped pins with an image of Lenin as a child, from the forced harmony of our voices, as we stood up, erect, to greet an adult entering a room to the sameness of our toys and winter coats and meals.
I was American then.
Because I yearned for freedom, and stood up for it.
Even as a child, who understood nothing of the reasons for the way we lived, I cringed at the sight of opened parcels with missing letters and items, my grandmother’s frightened hushing of my mother’s rants against things I didn’t know were a matter of life or death. You know they are listening, she would say. Sometimes, we could hear them listening in on us.
I was an American when I raised my fist and marched for Armenia’s freedom from Soviet rule.
For what is more American than protesting injustice and fighting for liberty and independence?
I was an American already, with everything in me that wanted out of the clenches of censorship, persecution, and unrelenting, bone deep fear.
Everything in me was answering this country’s promise of freedom.
I am an American because I left the land that birthed me to call this country my homeland.
Because when I got here, in the midst of the torrents of adolescence, I embraced the freedom for which I had yearned from the other side of the Iron Curtain — to speak and write and dress and learn and do and achieve and dare and venture and strive as I wished. Because I could.
I am an American because I took in all the languages, cultures, tastes, stories, sounds, ideas, and allowed them to shape me, make me whole.
I am an American because when I stepped into the arrivals area at JFK with my son, whom I had adopted in Jamaica through struggles of colossal magnitude that were resolved with the help of America’s elected officials and judges, I got down on my knees and wept, thanking this country for the refuge it was giving my son, sixteen years after it had welcomed me home through the same arrivals area at the same airport.
I am American because I am no one thing.
Because I am Armenian and have a Jamaican family. I am a teacher, a writer, a baker, an activist. I am the mother of children who do not look like me. I am a dreamer, a freedom fighter, an avid lover of progress.
I am American because when there is a threat to liberty, when fear creeps into my most sacred dreams of hope and freedom and turns them into nightmares of suffering that shouldn’t be, when people around me are struck by injustice and oppression, I stand up.
I am an American because the fist above my head and the feet marching the streets of New York are fueled by hope, and by the staunch belief that we are nothing when we are unfree.
Because freedom is everything, and its unrelenting pursuit is what makes an American.