I met a man in New York. My family and I were on a boat in the harbour. He heard us discussing a place the boat took us by — the restaurant scene, its self-avowedly idiosyncratic community — and wandered over to chat, because that is what New Yorkers do.
He worked on the boat. He had been born and raised in Queens, and now lived on a street in Brooklyn that had more West Indians than anything else, and was currently surfing along on a tide of Chinese, Indians, North Africans and Arabs. It was something he was proud of. “That’s New York!”
My wife and he talked about how her grandmother and his grandfather had both been processed through Ellis Island, which lay to one side. The conversation inevitably led to the Statue of Liberty, which we were bound to see.
That monument is intrinsic to how many Americans see themselves, because it is part and parcel of so many of their own origin stories. It is also an explicitly inclusionary symbol, one that has become a touchstone in the fractious debate over immigration and its twin, origins, a topic currently convulsing that country.
It was a cloudy, windy day, perhaps of a sort their forebears had known on their way to the New World. They would have sailed past Emma Lazarus’s ‘Mother of Exiles’ holding up her light to finally enter their names in the registers in the elegant Beaux Arts buildings that still stand on Ellis Island.
I’d like to go, my wife mused. You should, said the man. Every name is preserved. You’ll find your grandmother there.
This past week in Arizona, we went to a rodeo. That occasion — part pageant, part competition — is full-on Americana as well. Men, women and children sported cowboy boots and hats and carried miniature American flags. It was the weekend before America’s Independence Day. The mood was celebratory, fuelled by music, barbecue and beer.
The rodeo I’d been to before in Fort Worth, Texas, had made a self-conscious effort at being more inclusive, nodding to the West’s multiracial history by pushing a ‘Cowboys of Color’ theme. At the smaller one my family and I were attending in Arizona, aside from my son and myself, most of the “colour” came from sunburn.
We stood for the national anthem, belted out with fervour by everyone around us. Around us milled American families enjoying a bit of what they see as their own history as well.
There were few international tourists. The attendants were free to be themselves, in what I was reminded was “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. The myriad symbolisms of the whole performance — the flags, cowboys wrestling steers to the ground, the studied indifference to current politics or the tortured history of the “Old West” — were met with universal acclaim.
New York was a world away.
That man in the harbour was engagingly open about his history. He had Italian and Irish ancestry, which made him, in his own words, both a great cook and a world-class drinker. He was also a fount of information. According to him, the Statue of Liberty was originally designed by Bartholdi for the soon-to-be-opened Suez Canal in the 19th century before Egypt decided it couldn’t afford her. She was apparently even conceived of as an Egyptian peasant woman.
I found no consensus when I looked it up. Nonetheless, that she may have begun her inspirational life as a probably Arab, almost certainly Muslim woman has caught the attention of other commentators in the US as well.
I find it interesting how some national symbols are easy to get behind. And others are exclusionary, even if it isn’t by design.
I’m currently reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. Among other delights, this history of ancient Rome serves up a conversation about the nature of liberty itself, one that consumed the inhabitants of that early “Republic” just as much as it does us. There are so many resonances: Fear of men who would be “king”; an often murderous debate about whether an elected official was there to do his voters’ bidding, or exercise his conscience as he saw fit; and always, the vexed question of who was a citizen of Rome — who qualified to be one, what his duties were, and then, increasingly, what you were entitled to.
Who gets to be “one of us”, in other words, isn’t a modern preoccupation. And it’s a question that consumes my country of origin as much as it does my wife’s.
The truth is that we are free. We can choose to follow demagogues into xenophobia, religious essentialism of the worst sort, even autocracy. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. Or you can choose to exercise your educated conscience, as surprising numbers of people still do around the world.
Our boat passed by where the twin towers had stood. Up in the clouds rose the new building that has taken their place, a memorial to the dead below it. There were no flags on the boat, no appeals to support the troops. There was only silent reflection.
Enjoy your stay, said the man as we left the boat. “We will! We love New York.”
“Isn’t it something? Take care,” he said.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing. You can e-mail him at email@example.com