I first arrived in New York on the 6th of January, 1997, with a month long holiday visa that my parents planned to illegally overstay. I wore a short-sleeve tee, a pair of blue nylon ‘Knicks’ basketball shorts and a pair of white, partially torn Havaianas. My parents didn’t tell me January precipitation would be negative five centigrade and frozen—not the Philippine monsoons I was used to. Snow was my first stateside adaptation.
For two years we lived in a dingy, Queens borough basement where I first sampled American urban life’s easy pleasures. Makeshift waterparks from broken fire hydrants in the sweltering summer; the occasional Mister Softee ice-cream truck, whose sweet jingle would wake me up after a 3pm nap and have me sprinting to the corner for a shortcake bar, a first-world luxury I had never encountered before.
Soon, my parents found stable under-the-table housekeeping jobs for some wealthy folks up north. Unlike many other illegal aliens who stayed comfortably in inner-city enclaves, we picked up our lives and moved to nearby Fairfield county, Connecticut, a region of leafy commuter suburbs that often welcomed visitors with lush estates, sleek Maseratis and regal country clubs.
I was never burdened with the misfortunes that some illegal aliens face. Throw the words “illegal alien” around and people often visualise Central-American immigrants plodding through the Sonoran—the 280,000 square kilometre patch of arid land between Arizona and Mexico, laden with Saguaro cacti and diamond back rattlesnakes that pluck even the toughest souls from existence. While some immigrants spent their time avoiding Immigration and Customs raids, I spent my early teen years dodging municipal cops while inhaling at public parks. I faced zero discrimination in my community, as I made an active effort to achieve high marks in advanced placement classes, master classical piano and mingle with Fairfield’s high-achieving prodigies. I veiled my true immigrant status—some peers legitimately thought I was the poster child of The American Dream. In reality, I had no idea what Americanness was. I still have no idea what Americanness is.
My dad, like many other immigrants, saw America in terms of risk and reward. He lauded the Armani-clad financiers who filled Manhattan-bound trains every morning to earn the dollar at whatever private equity firm they called home for 80 hours a week. If I didn’t want to go to school, he would tell me about how he walked three kilometres in bare feet every day as a child just to get an education, or how at five years old he sold cigarettes on the side of the road to help his poor family pay rent. Sometimes when we drove by a stately chateau, he would pull over, point to the house and give me a starry-eyed talk about how I too could become one of the nouveau riche.
My mom saw America in leisure. Although she discouraged me from interacting with other children out of fear of disclosing our status, she made an active effort to ensure I had a stimulating upbringing. Hiking in maple woods, frequent trips to the Museum of Natural History, and Pokémon defined my childhood. A public school education taught me how to punt a homerun kickball out of a blacktop court, how to haphazardly play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the viola and how to get called out of school by smudging red marker blots on my face and faking a high fever. My mom truly believed Americanness was carefree fun, just like the stateside movie imports she grew up on, where post-war teens hung out at burger shops and drove candy paint Chevy convertibles to drive-in movie threatres.
Although my parents thought they’d figured it out, Americanness is still as alien as my immigration status was.
A lot has happened recently. My parents quit housekeeping to pursue lawful, higher paying careers, and we finally legitimised our citizenship a few years ago.
Some assume that now that I can call myself a lawful American I can walk down every corner of the country feeling safe knowing I’m constantly in the arms of people who will understand my background, my story and that of many other immigrants. But this is not true.
Americanness has been defined many times by many people. Alexis de Tocqueville saw America in the unique success of our indirect democracy. Beat icon Jack Kerouac implicitly defined Americanness by our collective spiritual void, and our hunger for constant stimulation to make up for said emptiness. My dad saw it in monetary success while my mom saw it in freedom of expression.
While trying to articulate my own culture, I can only fathom the wild narrative of every immigrant, every fringe culture, every inner-city tale, every tragic failure and every jubilant success. Our tales are a mosaic of too much to interpret, and to jam each and every one of them into a succinct velvet box with a dainty pink bowtie is fruitless.
I am in awe of America’s complex diversity, and hope I never discover what Americanness actually is.