“WHERE are you from?” A question that is both a challenge and an opportunity.
“But where are you from?” I guess I’m not that convincing.
I’ve had this conversation a thousand times. It nags. It sounds like one question but feels like another: “You’re not from here are you?”
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“From here.” It means so many different things. And this month, it’s the question the U.S. House will try to answer as it starts debate on immigration reform. The who, the when, the how, all of it, to put forth this generation’s manifesto on what it means to be American.
For me, to be American is to hold close all that it means to be from here, take responsibility for it and bring it to whatever I do.
That means being Asian American. Many in the Pacific Northwest are just now discovering violence and hate Chinese immigrants faced in the 1800s. Recent archaeological work and a Seattle Times story found how this new working class was treated: A granite stone in Bellingham reads, “No Chinese beyond this point.”
That means being Latino American. Controversial migrant-workers rights fomented in California in the 1960s led by Cesar Chavez. Now streets bear his name. It’s one chapter of an abundant Latino-American narrative. Growing up, teachers told me to learn Spanish, and I did.
That means being African American. President Obama was just in Senegal, and year before in Ghana, two of the main African slave ports. Not too long ago through Habitat for Humanity I lived in a small town with a Ghanaian family for two weeks, eating, working and going to church with them. It was a window into our long, rich African-American heritage.
In recent years, I finally grasped the effects of one of our country’s first major immigration laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, on my grandparents; and on me, a grandson of undocumented immigrants.
Last year my cousins and I sponsored a plaque honoring Grandma and Grandpa on Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, openly sharing their illegal path to U.S. shores.
These are small efforts to engage a handful of hues of the United States. There are at least 143 origin countries and 325 languages in our hyphenated immigrant paths to the U.S. They are all mine.
The last major immigration law passed in 1996, before that 1965. This year, prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio and Democrats like Chuck Schumer want 2013 to enter that sparse timeline.
Except for Native Americans, none of us can say I’m not an immigrant. None of us are on the sidelines. We are all part of this grand discussion that crests every few generations.
The Senate Judiciary Committee made over 140 changes to the immigration-reform bill. More are expected. That’s the way it should be. We are not a simple people. Health-care access, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) couples and family reunification are just some of the crucial issues all of us have a stake in. Let’s hear those ideas. Let’s forge the compromise.
In the process, we should expect some familiar words repeated: illegal, amnesty, aliens, to name a few. That’s OK to a point, so long as the core word gets the headline: American.
The word American is different from U.S. or United States. It has ardor, it resonates. Especially this year.
In 2013 we get to leave our footprint. An imprint to last decades on what we believe it means to be from here. From all of our paths, painful and privileged, to declare what it means to be American.
Richard Lui anchors NBC’s “Early Today” and dayside MSNBC shows in New York. On Twitter at @RichardLui