What, to an Immigrant, is the Fourth of July?

It’s July 4th, and after nearly 30 years of living in this country, I still don’t feel comfortable celebrating. I wasn’t born here. My independence came through another country, so what exactly am I celebrating? Do I have the right to celebrate?

Flag on the Gate House, Central Park

I’m conflicted.

I came to America as an adult, convinced that being here would afford me a better life, and it has.

But like a child caught between two parents – the parent who gave her birth and the one who adopted her – I struggle to detach, to give myself permission to love the new parent as unconditionally as I love the “real” one and not feel like a betrayal. So I sit on the fence unable to fully embrace the new parent, reserving that secret part of my heart for the real one.

Some would argue that my position has probably been detrimental. By not fully committing, I’ve kept myself from engaging.  But being familiar only with the mores and lexicon of the real parent, how does one fully engage?

I’ve involved myself in the things I believe in: volunteering to teach and mentor, campaigning and voting for candidates I support, demonstrating for causes I feel strongly about, and buying and selling property. I’ve done my best to be a good citizen.

So what will it take for me to feel like I’m really part of the family, to feel like I have the right to celebrate? Is it length of time or giving myself permission?

Would coming here at a younger age and going to school have helped me form stronger bonds or teach me to decode the lingo, the secret hand signals? I wonder.

I’ve also wondered if having children to shepherd through the “system,” children who could potentially force me to commit, would have made a difference. Probably.

Add to the complexity of my internal conflict, the fact that the household I chose used to own people like me, and a whole new layer of emotional baggage is added to the mix.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., routinely around the holiday, I’d hear black people refer to July 4th as the 4th of You Lie. It sounded catchy but it was said with such cynicism and disdain, I knew it had to be serious.

July 4th is the day of celebration of the colony gaining its independence from Britain but for nearly 100 years more, blacks remained chattel slaves until December 6, 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery was ratified.

Frederick Douglass summed it up best when, in 1852, he posed the question that still hangs in the air nearly 160 years later, What to the slave is your fourth of July?

Today, I’m asking, What, to a first generation immigrant like me, is the true meaning of the fourth of July?


15 comments on “What, to an Immigrant, is the Fourth of July?

  1. Thanks, Tony. I hadn’t heard it until I went to DC. One of my American friends said the same thing today.
    Maybe it’s a southern thing — haven’t heard since I moved to NY.

  2. I have to admit, I’ve never quite looked at it this way. Then again, I’ve never been very patriotic myself, I know my country has amazing benefits and opportunities that are hard to find elsewhere, not to mention a fabulous history. But I’m not enticed by common patriotic holidays and rituals, I think a lot of people really don’t take to heart the amazing story about how this country came about. There was good, and there was bad, it wasn’t perfect, and that’s my favorite part.

  3. The question for me really is, how to experience the same level of connection to one place when you’re from another…..how to not feel like a foreigner.
    Hope you had a great 4th.

  4. Sorry, I guess I kind of avoided it a little bit. When it comes down to it. When I went to visit Japan, what helped a lot was learning the culture and like I said, the history. That really made me feel part of the people. Now I’m curious if the United States has any culture that’s its own… not much that I can think of.

  5. Hi Marcia

    My email subscription to your blog has mysteriously dropped off, so I haven’t been getting notifications.

    Thank you for writing about your experience of settling in America. Home is home. A lot of immigrants I speak to love their home land but feel guilty about admitting it because they are also grateful for the opportunities here.

    Austra;ia Day is in January and is a celebration of the British colonising Australia. Aboriginal peope call it Survival Day. This week we celebrate National Aboriginal & Islander Day of Celebration (yes, it’s called a day of celebration but it goes for the whole week). This is the one I like to celebrate.

  6. Sorry Narelle, my fault.
    I goofed. When I changed the theme, I also changed the subscription option…it’s still new to me and I’m making quite a few mistakes. An expensive lesson for sure!
    It’s a difficult balance. I was talking to a friend whose mom was an immigrant. She said even after she had them, she still missed her home and especially her family. See, I thought kids would help you assimilate better, easier. Guess not for some people.
    Your holidays seem to be more inclusive and considerate — like your grandparents day. What a neat idea to recognize the role of grandparents.
    Thanks for finding me, Narelle.

  7. I’m thinking that having kids would be difficult initially due to not having family around for help and support. The isolation and longing for home would be amplified.

    You have done an amazing job to set up the new site. I wouldn’t know where to start.

  8. Good point. Hadn’t considered it at all. No matter how you look at it, it’s traumatic to leave one’s home but since it’s something will continue to happen, what we need are the proper supports in place to ease the transition.
    Thanks, Narelle. It’s taken me long enough! I think you’d be able to do it once you read the instructions.

  9. Thinking upon it some more. We all possibly idealise our childhood at times, get nostalgic about it, even people who grew up in tough circumstances. For some immigrants there may be a sense of grief or loss that their children are not growing up with the same values that they grew up with, due to the different circumstances.

    Also, if there is no extended family around, there may be concerns that the children are not growing up with the same sense of family that they had. I know some people that are saddened that their children don’t have a close bond with grandparents due to distance.

    The stories of the Italian and Greek immigrants who came here after the second world war highlight the language difference as one of the hardest things to overcome. I love hearing and reading those stories for their humour and tenacity and adaptability. One of my favourites is a book called Cats, Cradles, and Chamomile Tea by Anna Maria Dell’oso, a daughter of Italian immigrants, writing about her experience as a first generation Australian.

    Thought provoking topic.

  10. It is true that we rhapsodize the past. Even in cases where it might have been horrible or traumatic, the mind can find one or a few instances where times were good. Those become heightened in hindsight and with age.
    We lose out when the extended family’s not around to help with child rearing, passing on the customs of the old country, even recipes. I was fortunate. The times I spent with my maternal grandparents are precious – we still talk about my grandmother, a real force in our lives.
    My cousins and I grew up like siblings. We’ve been spending time together since we were little and continue to do so especially now.
    No matter what country we come from, at the core our immigrant stories are similar. I’ll look for Ms. Dell’oso’s book — sounds very interesting.
    Maybe because I’m getting older, I’ve been thinking about that and other topics a lot lately. Lots of food for thought.
    Thanks for your insight, Narelle

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