BOSTON–On Tuesday, I accompanied my wife to the electoral precinct near our home to observe American democracy firsthand. The makeshift polling station was on a basketball court at a former middle school, where elderly volunteers steered voters through the process. There were nine choices on the ballot — for US president, US senator, US representative, state senator, state representative, governor’s council, court clerk, deed register and sheriff — as well as five referendum questions, related to such things as the legalisation of medical marijuana and the prescription of euthanasia-inducing drugs.
Two girls stood outside selling homemade cookies to raise money for their school. The location and the ballot itself contributed to the parochial trappings of the enterprise: it may have been a national election, but it consisted of locals voting locally on local issues. That’s not necessarily what the rest of the world imagines.
Perception vs Reality
America has long suffered for the discordance between foreign perceptions and ground realities. Although my family lived in the United States during my early childhood — a comfortable suburban existence that gleamed on the fringes of my consciousness — I spent my formative years observing America from afar. Like countless others around the world, I grew up associating this powerful nation with boorish, unintelligent people, social inequity and an absence of real history or culture.
Living in Delhi in the early 1990s, during the pinnacle of US unipolarity, I shared in the widespread resentment of the US acting as the world’s self-anointed policeman. The occasional grating encounter with US expatriates, often in sheltered foreign outposts of Americana, contributed to these prejudices. None of this, curiously enough, impinged upon my voracious appetite for American films, television, music, fast food, or my desire to attend an American college.
Arriving as an undergraduate in Minnesota, deep in the Midwestern heartland, I stubbornly resisted the study of anything American, whether politics, history, or culture. But in time I developed a keener appreciation of my new country of residence and its people. Far from the stereotype of uncultured small-town hicks, I encountered a politically and civically engaged society with a surprising amount of curiosity about the world and an extraordinary appreciation for the arts. I anticipated hostility and xenophobia against South Asians following the 9/11 attacks, but never experienced overt racism.
Travel contributed to a much deeper understanding of the US’s immense diversity: the many slivers of the country that escape depiction in exportable popular culture. And a lecture on the foundations of the American republic provided a first true glimmer of appreciation for the US’s smug sense of exceptionalism. In time, professional experiences cemented my admiration for America’s singularity: although I worked in public policy and security, inherently sensitive fields, I never felt constrained by my background or origins.
The Other Land
This year, I became eligible for US citizenship, an opportunity millions might seize in a heartbeat. But despite studying, working, residing and marrying in the country, I opted not to apply. To some degree, my choice was a direct function of India’s rise. American citizenship once provided Indians a passport to unparalleled opportunity and security, but in relative terms it is losing its lustre. Favourable views of the US in India have tumbled from over 70% in 2005 to under 50% today, in large part due to America’s declining attraction as a land of opportunity. H-1B non-immigrant employment visas, highly prized until recently by Indian professionals, now go unclaimed.
In other respects, my choice was influenced by identity: as much as I enjoy living in the United States, my loyalty to the country — insofar as I feel any — is tenuous. A sharp sense of unease and vulnerability resurfaces during those rare unpleasant encounters with American officialdom. In Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland, his Dutch protagonist is maliciously denied a US driver’s licence because of a minor clerical error. “I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country,” recalls O’Neill’s narrator.
“The rinsed taxis,” he observes, walking out into the New York streets, “shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage… you saw a foul mechanical dark.” It’s a feeling immediately recognisable to anyone who has had to wait in line for a visa at a US consulate, parrying hostile questions about the reasons for one’s visit.
Still at Home
There is still no denying that American society remains predisposed toward inclusivity, its strongest suit, and an unexpectedly contagious sentiment for an undertaking as exclusive as a national election. I may not have cast a ballot in this week’s presidential vote; I could not, nor did I have any desire to. But my voluntary disenfranchisement has not prevented America — and the values it stands for — from earning my deep respect as a foreign national. In fact, it is that very appreciation of the US’s pluralistic, democratic attributes that makes me prouder still to remain a citizen of that other great pluralistic democracy: India.