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Random Notes on a Hyphenated Identity

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September 2003
Random Notes on a Hyphenated Identity

Lately, and not for the first time, I have wondered why I am not yet an American citizen even after having lived here for many years. After all, my wife and several relatives in the U.S. are citizens. More importantly, I see myself as an Indian-American with a deep attachment to this country. But does this Indian-American identity necessarily mean that one should tie the knot, so to speak, and acquire an American passport?

Especially after 9/11, given the understandable surge of patriotic fervor, a lot of people contend that the ultimate test of loyalty is citizenship. Moreover, they see the hyphenated American (and, by extension, dual citizenship) as an anomaly and argue that a person can belong to only one nation. For them, since the U.S. has long been a great melting pot, the idea of living as a "global soul" (to borrow the title of a book by Pico Iyer) does not really apply to this society. When a person becomes American, their monochromatic view implies, he sheds his old identity and attachments.

However, for many immigrants, it's not so simple. Like it or not, we tend to live in an interconnected world of multiple and fluid selves. In reality, when defining ourselves, we use not one but several hyphens, which can sometimes increase or decrease in number during our lifetime. For practical purposes, though, only one hyphen is used to establish our identity in this society, and that's the hyphen that goes between Indian and American.

To better understand the nature of this dual identity, I think one must address the issue of dual nationality. First, though, let me return to an earlier question: is it necessary to acquire U.S. citizenship in order to become Indian-American? Although not absolutely essential, I think it's a good idea and I am all for it. Nevertheless, for a long time, I was reluctant to become one since I have never ruled out the possibility of returning to India one day. Despite my enduring admiration for America, I recognize that I have two homes. Like many other immigrants who grew up in India before moving here, I have strong family ties in both countries.

Over the last few years, however, I have slowly realized that I cannot become a full-fledged Indian-American until I acquire U.S. citizenship. One cannot participate fully in this society unless one accepts that honor. For instance, looking back, I regret that I didn't have a voice in the last presidential election. My vote, for what it is worth, would have given me immense satisfaction on that momentous occasion. This is merely one example ? albeit an important one ? of the privileges granted by U.S. citizenship.

Fortunately, Indian-Americans no longer have to choose between these two nations. On May 6th this year, the government of India finally decided to grant dual citizenship to Indians in the U.S. and seven other countries. So, at least in these places, the official distinction between NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) and PIOs (Persons of Indian Origin) becomes less significant.

Finally, after all these years, I can happily become an American citizen without giving up my Indian passport. But the idea of dual citizenship raises new questions, and it remains a contentious issue even in this country. For a recent magazine article on American perceptions of Indian-Americans and India, we surveyed some local non-Indians. "Dual citizenship should not be an option," said a graduate student in marketing. "Allowing individuals to carry dual citizenship creates loopholes that result in practical problems ? law enforcement, tax collection, etc." However, at another local university, an MBA student remarked, "It would be very difficult to renounce citizenship in your home country even if you can live a better life here."

In his concise and timely book, In the Name of Identity, Amin Maalouf cogently argues that we should not restrict our allegiance to the country we live in. At least to some extent, he points out, we must seek a connection with the broader world. He shows how in our increasingly global era, where distances have shrunk and various populations are intermixing as never before, we must embrace a new kind of identity. "Especially in the case of those whose culture of origin is not that of the society they live in," he writes, "people must be able to accept a dual affiliation without too much anguish; which means remaining loyal to their culture of origin and not feeling obliged to conceal it like some shameful disease, and at the same time being receptive to the culture of their adoptive country."

Dual citizenship, therefore, does not imply divided loyalty. On the contrary, binational Indian-Americans belong not only to these two countries but also, in a lot of ways, to the larger world. Migrants ? by nature and as result of their varied experiences ? usually have a complex identity, which becomes their strength in these fast-changing times. As Pico Iyer notes, "The hope of a Global Soul, always, is that he can make the collection of his selves greater than the whole; that diversity can leave him not a dissonance but a higher symphony."


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