Friday, July 2, 2010

On Becoming an Unhyphenated American.....

Boondock Destination:  America

I wrote an article on becoming an  American.

It was published but as a shortened version.

Here is the link to the short version:

I still prefer the long version, but nobody will publish it at 2500 words.   So I decided to publish it here.  If you want to find out how a kid named Vladimir ends up a Bob Wills and Grateful Dead fan it is all here.  More importantly, it tells how that kid became an American and why.

Feel free to share this link with your friends and family.  

We will be back to exploring out public lands in the next posting.  Sorry the the slight detour.

On becoming an Unhyphenated American

I was right in the middle of a report for work which I had to complete this day. I was not pleased with the interruption - two computer spreadsheets were open and reference documents strewn around. I escaped to the cabin to avoid the phone calls and drop-in visitors that are the daily routine in the office.

But, by the cadence of the knock I knew this was not a social call, so I answered.It was the United States Census. "Do you live here?"

"No, actually it is a place of business. I rent this home for vacation use. I filled out the census form at home."

"No matter," he said. "What is your name?"

As soon as I said it, a gleam came into his eye. Then he asked, "Are you a Russian- or Ukrainian-American?"

It wasn't always like this. When we moved from Venezuela to America in 1956, the United States government was concerned that I become an American without ethnicity attached.

My mother told me that the immigration agent at LaGuardia Airport wanted to change my name to Walter from Vladimir. He gently explained that it would be easier for me not to have a name that sounded foreign as I grew up American.

My mother refused.

The government did not give up so easily. In school, Spanish and Ukrainian were not accepted languages. I needed to learn English as quickly as possible.

I still remember my second-grade teacher in Patterson, N.J. God bless Mrs. Darben. She took time to help this poor little foreign boy and equipped him to be successful on his journey to becoming an American. She needed to start with the basics, as she helped my transition from rural Venezuela to urban America.

It was the library's summer reading program after fourth grade that really helped me. The library had a simple program: Read a book and receive a prize. For a poor child, that was all the incentive I needed. Every day I would troop to the library and read a complete book and gather my prize. At the beginning of the summer, it was the prize that I wanted. By the end of summer, it was the books that I craved.

Many of the books I read were about American history - the Swamp Fox and his role in the American Revolution; books on Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln; the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans.

Other teachers filled in. A fifth-grade teacher gave me the complete works of O. Henry and made me promise I would read them when I got older. A sixth-grade teacher noticed I could not pronounce the "TH" sound and sent me to speech therapy for two years to learn how to place my tongue on my teeth to pronounce "the" just like the native-born Americans. The speech therapist also taught me to speak English without the Spanish cadence.

By high school, I spoke English like a native. The only giveaway that I was not native-born was my name.

As I became more and more American, more and more Americans insisted that I really was an ethnic American. So much so, that by 1968 I was not sure who I really was or to which country I belonged.

My mother once said, "There are only two things wrong with Americans. One, they are incredibly naïve about the world and two, they do not realize how lucky they are." American friends kept insisting the Soviet Union was just like America. America's luck and naiveté were to be tested in the late 1960s.

In 1968 our family watched in disbelief and horror, as we saw the only country that offered hope and a future for planet Earth rip itself apart. We saw an unpopular war, political assassinations, riots. We saw freedoms fall once again behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia and an America too preoccupied with its own troubles to even protest.

It was during these turbulent times that I turned 18 and began the process of becoming an American citizen. But I was still unsure if this was my country. The government employee administering the test noticed. He kept me giving harder and harder questions on American history, values, and the Constitution. Those books I read in the summer so many years before came in handy. So did the ninth-grade year-long class on the Constitution, along with high school courses in American history and political science.

The test examiner finally threw in the towel when I answered my last citizenship question: "What was the role of the Jacksonian movement and its ramifications on the American political system?" It might have been the most difficult oral citizenship test in American history.

Shortly after becoming an American citizen, I started my junior year at the University of California, Berkeley. At that time it was probably ground zero for the native anti-American movement. It was unbelievable to see American college students carrying the red flags of communism. To my parents, the hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag symbolized death and famine.

I was still unsure if I was an American, but I was quite sure that the solution to America's problems was not socialism. Canada started to become attractive.

Foresters always have a strong attraction to blank places on a map. Canada had a lot of blank places. Canada felt like the frontier country that America use to be. Friends who had moved to Canada to go to school all spoke well of the country.

Confused and unsure of America's future and my own, I decided to move to Canada to attend graduate school.

Canada, while appearing to be similar to the United States, is a very different country. The first clue was when I changed my greenback dollars to the multicolor Canadian bills. There on the front was a picture of her, the Queen of the Commonwealth. When I went to the post office, there she was again beaming down behind the postal clerks. I remember thinking, "Who elected her queen?"

I was thinking like an American.

In response to the kidnapping of government ministers, the Liberal government in Ottawa imposed press censorship throughout the country. I read the Vancouver Sun with big white spaces on the front page where articles had been pulled.

Nobody complained or demonstrated. It dawned on me the First Amendment did not apply north of the border.

I had a hard time adapting to Canadian society and even a harder time with Canadian higher education. As I walked into a seminar on forestry research, little did I know this presentation would change my life.

A graduate student spent 10 minutes talking about the historical differences between Canada and the United States. He pointed out that Canada was founded by a corporation - the Hudson's Bay Company. There was no revolution in Canada and its independence was at Britain's insistence, rather than Canada's. He joked that the reason Canadians have socialized medicine is it began as a corporate benefit. Like most businesses, the emphasis is on fitting in with the corporate culture. Creativity and individualism are not encouraged, but solid contributions to the existing state are.

This is why Canadian research is focused on practical application and also why scientific breakthroughs tend happen in the United States.

An individual will take more risks than groups or committees.

The United States was founded by revolution, brought on by the overriding principle of individual rights. People of this "new world" feared government would impinge on their rights as individuals. So the United States became a country where people felt pride in their government, but also kept guns to use against that same government if their individual rights were trampled. When people became fed up with their government, they headed for the frontier to live their lives as they saw fit.

During that brief lecture, I realized I was never going to fit in Canada. Being born in one country, raised in another culture, and educated in a third, you are always sure of being different. I needed to live in a country where individuals are valued and given the opportunity to make a difference.

America requires only that you believe in the social experiment that was started over 200 years ago. As a naturalized American once said, "I could live in France for a lifetime and never become a Frenchman. But here in America, after five years I can become an American complete with a accent."

You just have to believe in America and the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Shortly after that lecture, I packed my truck, stuck Allman Brothers into the tape deck and left Canada playing "Southbound" at maximum volume.

When I hit the border at Blaine, the immigration agent asked why I was entering the United States. With a grin, I said, "I'm coming home.".

He said, "Over to the side, kid, and start unpacking the truck."

Even that request did not change my mood. America might have been going to hell in a handbasket during the early 1970s, but I realized that I was going to go along for the ride. There was still not a better country in the world for me. For better or worse, this is my country, but I was still a hyphenated American.

More importantly, I still viewed myself as a hyphenated American.

Change came in 1976. I got accepted to graduate school at Berkeley, so I quit my job, bought a bicycle in England and started pedaling through Europe. The highlight of the trip for me was not Western Europe, but two weeks behind the Iron Curtain.

The Polish border guards were incredulous and wanted to see this American with a Ukrainian name. The Soviets did not have an immigration and customs service. Their entry was controlled by the Soviet Army. I had a brief conversation with a Soviet officer exactly my age. He could not believe there were Americans who spoke Ukrainian and traveled under an American passport. He was very envious.

While traveling through the Russian and Ukrainian republics I noticed that people identified me as an American, or as an American with Ukrainian parents. There was no ethnicity attached. I was starting to realize that I was not hyphenated.

I took a Soviet ship from Finland to England. On all cruise lines, even Soviet ones, passing the time at sea is very important. To help, the ship's crew organized a chess tournament. At the registration desk a young, attractive Soviet woman asked my name and nationality. "Vladimir Ivanovich Steblina, Ukrainian-American" I answered. Her reply, in the best icy commissar style, was, "No such thing." She quickly wrote American on my tournament card.

I was paired with a young British lad for the first round. In 15 moves I was out of the tournament and had plenty of time to ponder her comment:  There is no such thing as a Ukrainian-American.

The reason we were in America was the family farm in the Ukraine was confiscated, my grandmother shot, and my father made homeless and an orphan before his teens. My family escaped the Ukraine into Nazi Germany, from post-war Germany to Venezuela, and then to America.

The Ukraine was part of my family's history, but not filled with pleasant memories. America, on the other hand, gave us not only one opportunity, but second and third chances.

I realized I owed America everything.

I was not born an American - English is my third language - but I take pride in the ideals, values, and achievements of this country. I cheapen the value of America and give credit to a sorry chapter in our family's history by insisting on hyphenating my nationality.

Unfortunately, the American government now thinks differently.

The census taker repeated his question., "Well, are you a Russian- or Ukrainian-American?"

I replied, "I would rather be just an American; but I suppose technically I am a Latino of European origin."

"I do not have a box for Latinos of European origin," he said.

I just shrugged.

The census taker then continued the interview "Your wife, is she a Latino of European origin?"

"No, she's as American as they come. Came from Scottish, English and German stock from well over 150 years ago. I doubt she is a hyphenated American."

He replied, "And your daughter, that makes her a Latino of European origin?"

I just shook my head. "No, no you just don't understand. The reason we came to this country was so she could be an American."

And she is a good one, too. She has the poise, the confidence, the sense of fair play, the optimism, the drive to succeed, and the tolerance that marks America."

I am disappointed my own government wants to hyphenate me. At least my daughter is un-hyphenated. I hope she realizes how lucky she is to be just an American.


Dugg said...

Great post. Very apropos on this weekend celebrating the birth of our country. I had read the shorter version on another website. The longer version filled in a lot of gaps.

One thing to think about: hyphenated or not, you count; many of your readers are not as lucky. Full-time RVers won't receive the form in the mail, and those who regularly camp in the forests won't be visited.

tinycamper said...

That was one of the most moving articles on what it means to be a real American that I have ever read.

I, too, deeply resent the government's insistence on ethnic divisiveness. I can't help thinking "divide and conquer."

I wish that all of the native born Americans who hate this country and everything she stands for could comprehend your perspective.

Then America could be great again.

Thank you for reminding me of what we used to be.

Anonymous said...

Wow good stuff!

Anonymous said...

You're unhyphenated in my book - and make me proud to be an American

Anonymous said...

Great recounting of your and your family history and I am glad you consider yourself an American. In my case we don't even know what nationality our last name is. Somewhere along the line my ancestors decided it wasn't that important. That seems truly American to me.
I will suggest that you go easy on the government and their hyphenated questions. Most of my life they tried to drive the hyphens out of us and a backlash against that has resulted in the present period of making room for hyphens all over the place. The government is flexible enough to mold to the wishes of "the people". I have no doubt that in another decade or so, hyphens will be on the way out again.