I became an American citizen on July 13, 2016, and this election year is definitely an interesting season to be a brand new, first-time voter in the USA. I am not a stranger to the idea of the democratic process. In fact, the past three times that I voted, I took part in the largest democratic process in the history of humanity – in India, my country of origin. The last time that India went to the polls (in 2014), about 540 million people showed up to cast their ballots! So, while lining up to exercise my right to vote may not be unusual to me, it is still rather surreal to do so in a different country. As it happens, the opportunity to write this article comes at a good time because it has prompted me to reflect and articulate what my heart is truly feeling about this election and my ability to vote.
20 years. That’s exactly how long it has been since I first set foot in the United States of America. Right then and there, I was immediately – and painfully – aware of how far away I was from home. Home was Bangalore, India, where I had said goodbye to my close-knit family and traveled to the other side of the world to continue to make my way in academia.
When news of my imminent departure had spread to my family and friends scattered across India, many came out to give me their best wishes. One of my distant relatives, however, gave me something more. He gave me a word of advice that I have never forgotten. He said that while it was good for me to go to the US, he hoped that I would not make just landing in the US my success story. Instead, he wanted me to thrive in the country and to make my family proud by what I accomplished. I still think about those words and how they affected me. They made me want to overcome and rise up in this new country.
I was 17 years old when I walked out of the JFK Terminal in New York City. I was overwhelmed. I was tired. I was scared. But I was determined to make something of myself in the USA.
I came to the US on a student visa to attend college. After graduation from both college and seminary, including a brief stint working back in India, I came back to US soil permanently to work at a church. Soon, I married my beautiful wife, Katy, and got a Green Card. Yet, no matter how well I adapted to life in the United States, I was somehow always left feeling a bit like an outsider. At first, I thought it was due to my accent, or my skin tone, but it became obvious to me over time that it was my inability to fully exercise my right to vote that made the difference. In a dramatic bit of irony, I was unable to cast my vote for our public library’s campaign to renew their millage this year, even though I was the recognizable face on the mass-produced brochure for that cause!
Last year, upon return to the US from one of my many brief trips to India, I looked closely at my Green Card and realized that it was going to expire in 2017. I flirted briefly with the idea of renewing it, but in my heart I knew that I would not do it. This moment was also right around the time that I realized that I had lived in the US longer than I had lived in India. While my identity was very much Indian, I knew the time to naturalize as an American citizen was nigh. It was a very bittersweet decision, because India requires that you renounce your citizenship when you acquire the citizenship of another country. But still, the time was now. I was certain. I filled out the paperwork, went to the local USCIS when my biometrics came up, and – after the formalities of signatures and fingerprints were done – I picked up my booklet to prepare for my citizenship test. I won’t bore you with details of the actual interview itself. As harrowing as the preparation for it was, everything went as expected. I was congratulated upon completion of the interview, and within a few weeks I was sworn in as a proud citizen of the United States.
It was not long before the eye-rolls and the sarcastic comments began, as those around me began to ask if I had truly thought through my decision, especially considering the current political season. Sure, the teasing was done in good-natured fun, but there was a subtle undertone which spoke to the despondency that we have seen rise to a crescendo during this political season. And yes, while some of that pessimism is warranted, instead I want to direct your attention to something else:
I want to give you a glimpse into the room where I was sworn in as a US citizen at the Gerald R. Ford Museum, on July 13th of this summer, because the truth is that I do want to be a part of this country, especially during this very interesting season in her history. When I stood in line to register that day, I was surrounded by over 50 beautiful souls from around the world. We all got to sit with family and friends in this cacophonous room in which we were welcomed formally into the USA and given our Certificates of Naturalization.
Every one of the people sworn in that day was there because he or she sought freedom, and security, and greater well-being. Like my relative had admonished me, I had done my best to thrive here. I had accomplished, and overcome, and risen up. In the moment, I was particularly exhilarated by the thought that I would now be able to stand together with my family in the immigration line every time we entered the USA. This simple thought pointed to the reality of my success here, and the rightness of my new citizenship.
And here we are, a nation that is torn apart and worried about what will happen this November. Various doomsday scenarios have been painted by various voices and authorities, and yet I remain hopeful. I remain hopeful because I believe in a system where my voice matters. I believe that we are better than these paltry divisions that currently polarize the country.
I look forward to voting here in the United States. Knowing that my voice matters is a major part of my success story, and that should be the case for each one of us as we line up in the polls to vote in November.
Want to hear more from JP Sundararajan? Plan to attend JP Sundararajan’s First Mondays’ presentation, “Ultimately…Love Triumphs,” on Monday, November 7 at 11 am on Dordt College’s campus. Or, watch it via live stream here.