By Anna Maria Aniban
The first time I was asked this question was in the early 70s. A new bride at 22, I was being introduced by my white, blue-eyed husband (now ex) to his family and friends in the south. Our host’s mother was proud to recount her travels to SEA, India, and other parts of that world. Then, she turned to me and said, “We didn’t have time to see your country but someday, I would like to meet your people.” It was a compliment I thought for someone to show interest in my country. Just a week ago, I was still in my country.
A decade past, divorced with an American passport obtained not through marriage but by choice, basking in the glory of reaching an upper middle management position in a Fortune 500 company, it was a pleasure to go in and out of mainstream white society with ease. This was in the early 80s when equal employment opportunity was aggressively enforced and a female with the right qualifications, no matter what ethnic background, was “pushed” into management. A few remarked on the beauty of a flawless naturally tanned complexion, shiny long black hair, fluid command of the English language, and an ability to banter effortlessly with a touch of the American sense of humor.
But times really haven’t changed that much from the 70s. Invited to a catered afternoon tea party on the Upper West Side, a lovely blonde who left the corporate world to be a successful chef, casually asked me, “When are you going to visit your country again?” She knew that I loved to travel and we were just talking about my recent vacation in Switzerland. It was the first time the reference to “your country” created a mental and an emotional stir.
“Your country?” I felt like an outsider and yearned to belong.
Thirty-eight years later, happily retired and gratefully living in this crazy engaging metropolis, a close friend visiting family in the west coast wrote that her brother-in-law had three wonderful caregivers from Asia. She said, “I tasted dishes from your country …” This time, I can’t help thinking that I have lived in this great country, the United States of America, longer than in any other country, I am a citizen, and it is my country. A few times, people even remarked that I don’t have an accent.
What does it take to be considered an American? What does it take for a dear friend who still introduces me as her “Asian friend” to simply “my friend?” Apparently, being a citizen for a long time, going to a New York City grad school, paying taxes and fully absorbing the American culture do not cut it.
I almost can hear Andy Rooney ending his essay segments on CBS’ 60 minutes with a question “What does?”
The author of this column has lived in Stuyvesant Town since 1988.