Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Commentary: Childhood insult was an odd reminder of American heritage (The Detroit News, 5/16/2012)

May 16, 2012

Commentary: Childhood insult was an odd reminder of American heritage


"Go back to your own country!" shouted a neighbor from her porch. I heard this as I was taking a shortcut through her yard from the neighborhood soccer field to my house during the summer between seventh- and eighth-grade.

While one might expect my first response to be stomach-burning anger, my first feelings were of pure surprise. I thought to myself, "But ... this is my country ..." It wasn't until I did a faceplant into my bed that I burst into tears. I felt confused. I felt ashamed. I began to ask myself, "Do I not belong?"

I was born in Detroit and graduated from the same neighborhood school where I went to kindergarten. I don't have an Indian accent. I don't say this as a point of pride; it's just a fact. The country to which my neighbor referred is a place I have visited twice — once as a baby and once when I was 11 years old. In my opinion, I was as Michigan as they get. As a child I would forget that I didn't look like every other Grosse Pointe teenager. Human eyes face outward.

A little background on my family. My mom and dad were born in Chennai, India. My father came to Detroit to receive training as a general surgeon and then sub-specialized in vascular surgery at St. John Hospital, where he has been treating patients for over 30 years. My mother earned her MBA from Wayne State at night while managing our household.

Despite her hectic schedule she made time to tutor me in chemistry, which is fitting because she also used to teach chemistry at a local college. Since graduating, she has worked in banking in Metro Detroit for nearly 15 years. So while my parents were born and raised in India, they have spent the greater part of their lives in Michigan. Their roots are Indian but their hearts, minds and citizenship are red-white-and-blue.

I'm an American citizen with Indian heritage. I'm married to an American citizen with European heritage. We have a child who is an American citizen with Indian and European heritage; she's a living, breathing symbol of the American "melting pot." I've never felt more like an American than I do now.

To the woman who yelled, I'd like to say this: Thank you for reminding me that we're such a young country that we don't always know a true American when we see one.

As an aside, if you need some minimally invasive vascular surgery by an American who was trained in your neighborhood, lived in your area longer than you, and loves his country, I know a guy. Maybe we can provide some banking assistance from an American who studied locally and understands the economics of the area like the back of her hand.

Either way, let us know if we can help you out — it's the American way.

Arjune Rama was raised in Grosse Pointe Shores. He will begin his psychiatry residency at Yale University School of Medicine this July.