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Two Ways to Belong in America
By Bharati Mukherjee
- Sept. 22, 1996
This is a tale of two sisters from Calcutta, Mira and Bharati, who have lived in the United States for some 35 years, but who find themselves on different sides in the current debate over the status of immigrants. I am an American citizen and she is not. I am moved that thousands of long-term residents are finally taking the oath of citizenship. She is not.
Mira arrived in Detroit in 1960 to study child psychology and pre-school education. I followed her a year later to study creative writing at the University of Iowa. When we left India, we were almost identical in appearance and attitude. We dressed alike, in saris; we expressed identical views on politics, social issues, love and marriage in the same Calcutta convent-school accent. We would endure our two years in America, secure our degrees, then return to India to marry the grooms of our father's choosing.
Instead, Mira married an Indian student in 1962 who was getting his business administration degree at Wayne State University. They soon acquired the labor certifications necessary for the green card of hassle-free residence and employment.
Mira still lives in Detroit, works in the Southfield, Mich., school system, and has become nationally recognized for her contributions in the fields of pre-school education and parent-teacher relationships. After 36 years as a legal immigrant in this country, she clings passionately to her Indian citizenship and hopes to go home to India when she retires.
In Iowa City in 1963, I married a fellow student, an American of Canadian parentage. Because of the accident of his North Dakota birth, I bypassed labor-certification requirements and the race-related ''quota'' system that favored the applicant's country of origin over his or her merit. I was prepared for (and even welcomed) the emotional strain that came with marrying outside my ethnic community. In 33 years of marriage, we have lived in every part of North America. By choosing a husband who was not my father's selection, I was opting for fluidity, self-invention, blue jeans and T-shirts, and renouncing 3,000 years (at least) of caste-observant, ''pure culture'' marriage in the Mukherjee family. My books have often been read as unapologetic (and in some quarters overenthusiastic) texts for cultural and psychological ''mongrelization.'' It's a word I celebrate.
Mira and I have stayed sisterly close by phone. In our regular Sunday morning conversations, we are unguardedly affectionate. I am her only blood relative on this continent. We expect to see each other through the looming crises of aging and ill health without being asked. Long before Vice President Gore's ''Citizenship U.S.A.'' drive, we'd had our polite arguments over the ethics of retaining an overseas citizenship while expecting the permanent protection and economic benefits that come with living and working in America.
Like well-raised sisters, we never said what was really on our minds, but we probably pitied one another. She, for the lack of structure in my life, the erasure of Indianness, the absence of an unvarying daily core. I, for the narrowness of her perspective, her uninvolvement with the mythic depths or the superficial pop culture of this society. But, now, with the scapegoating of ''aliens'' (documented or illegal) on the increase, and the targeting of long-term legal immigrants like Mira for new scrutiny and new self-consciousness, she and I find ourselves unable to maintain the same polite discretion. We were always unacknowledged adversaries, and we are now, more than ever, sisters.
''I feel used,'' Mira raged on the phone the other night. ''I feel manipulated and discarded. This is such an unfair way to treat a person who was invited to stay and work here because of her talent. My employer went to the I.N.S. and petitioned for the labor certification. For over 30 years, I've invested my creativity and professional skills into the improvement of this country's pre-school system. I've obeyed all the rules, I've paid my taxes, I love my work, I love my students, I love the friends I've made. How dare America now change its rules in midstream? If America wants to make new rules curtailing benefits of legal immigrants, they should apply only to immigrants who arrive after those rules are already in place.''
To my ears, it sounded like the description of a long-enduring, comfortable yet loveless marriage, without risk or recklessness. Have we the right to demand, and to expect, that we be loved? (That, to me, is the subtext of the arguments by immigration advocates.) My sister is an expatriate, professionally generous and creative, socially courteous and gracious, and that's as far as her Americanization can go. She is here to maintain an identity, not to transform it.
I asked her if she would follow the example of others who have decided to become citizens because of the anti-immigration bills in Congress. And here, she surprised me. ''If America wants to play the manipulative game, I'll play it too,'' she snapped. ''I'll become a U.S. citizen for now, then change back to Indian when I'm ready to go home. I feel some kind of irrational attachment to India that I don't to America. Until all this hysteria against legal immigrants, I was totally happy. Having my green card meant I could visit any place in the world I wanted to and then come back to a job that's satisfying and that I do very well.''
In one family, from two sisters alike as peas in a pod, there could not be a wider divergence of immigrant experience. America spoke to me -- I married it -- I embraced the demotion from expatriate aristocrat to immigrant nobody, surrendering those thousands of years of ''pure culture,'' the saris, the delightfully accented English. She retained them all. Which of us is the freak?
Mira's voice, I realize, is the voice not just of the immigrant South Asian community but of an immigrant community of the millions who have stayed rooted in one job, one city, one house, one ancestral culture, one cuisine, for the entirety of their productive years. She speaks for greater numbers than I possibly can. Only the fluency of her English and the anger, rather than fear, born of confidence from her education, differentiate her from the seamstresses, the domestics, the technicians, the shop owners, the millions of hard-working but effectively silenced documented immigrants as well as their less fortunate ''illegal'' brothers and sisters.
Nearly 20 years ago, when I was living in my husband's ancestral homeland of Canada, I was always well-employed but never allowed to feel part of the local Quebec or larger Canadian society. Then, through a Green Paper that invited a national referendum on the unwanted side effects of ''nontraditional'' immigration, the Government officially turned against its immigrant communities, particularly those from South Asia.
I felt then the same sense of betrayal that Mira feels now. I will never forget the pain of that sudden turning, and the casual racist outbursts the Green Paper elicited. That sense of betrayal had its desired effect and drove me, and thousands like me, from the country.
Mira and I differ, however, in the ways in which we hope to interact with the country that we have chosen to live in. She is happier to live in America as expatriate Indian than as an immigrant American. I need to feel like a part of the community I have adopted (as I tried to feel in Canada as well). I need to put roots down, to vote and make the difference that I can. The price that the immigrant willingly pays, and that the exile avoids, is the trauma of self-transformation.
Two Ways to Belong in America Essay
Being an immigrant is not an easy. People immigrating to another country do not do so because of good situation in their home country. Most people are driven in their immigration decision based on their search for a better life, or at least better than the one in their home countries. In that regard, no matter how bad it was back home, people still feel connection with their land which sometimes result in a two-sided situation, where people are torn in establishing the country they belong to.
A similar situation is found in the biographical article “Two ways to Belong in America” by Bharati Mukherjee, which describes two different perspectives on how immigrants perceive themselves in America, based on the opinions of the author and her Sister Mira. The article was written as a response to the proposal, which was eventually defeated, to deny legal benefits to resident aliens, and accordingly this paper analyzes these different perspectives based on the difference between the perceptions of the two sisters, stating that belonging to another country implies more than legally living there.
The position of Bharati is mainly that the way she belongs to America is complete, i.e. being a citizen. She does not hold that bond anymore, where she even “welcomed the emotional strain that came from marrying from [her] ethnic community” (Kirszner and Mandell, p. 416). Bharati became a citizen for the United States and the proposed policy did not affect her as she had no intentions to go back to her homeland India, and as her sister think, she erased her “Indianness”.
Mira, on the other hand, represents a legal resident, an immigrant whose only bond is to take “the permanent protection and economic benefits that come with living and working in America.” This status was fine with Mira, as long as she could go wherever she wanted to maintaining her own identity. The propose policy, even though it was defeated, just revealed the truth that the other way of belonging to America does not make her an immigrant, where she is just “expatriate Indian”.
In that regard, the difference in the sisters’ perception comes from that with that policy proposed, there is no really two ways to belong to America. There is only one way in which you become not only a citizen, but also opting for changes from the conditions left behind, which for Bharati were the fluidity, self-invention, and cultural marriage rejection. Other than that, it does not matter that you pay your taxes, obey the rules, or speak English with fluency, you will remain an alien, and as Bharati said, it is a price that they are willing to pay. Accordingly, even if Mira obtained citizenship, she would do so just to have the advantages of a citizen, not because she wants to devote her life to this country.
It can be concluded, that the situation presented in Bharati’s article demonstrates that no matter how hard it was for people in their homeland, they still have that bond. It is only that the policy did not differentiate between citizens and legal residents in treatment that such people thought that it is possible to belong in America in two ways, maintaining the citizenship and enjoying the benefits. As soon as such policy changes, there is only one way to totally belong to America, and that implies more than just living there.
Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell. Patterns for College Writing : A Rhetorical Reader and Guide. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.
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Two Ways to Belong in America - By Bharati Mukherjee
It is a fact that America is the land where one can experience many cultures. People from all around the globe come to this country to improve their lifestyle, to have better education and live the American dream to fulfil their wishes. However, there is a common misconception that every immigrant is similar; thus, they all have similar dreams. This may not be true in all cases. Different people come to America with different dreams. Even people who share the same background may have varying hopes and dreams for their future. This is what we find in Bharati Mukherjee's essay " Two Ways to Belong to America". Bharati and Mira have been exposed to the same kind of environment and situation, yet they react differently to their immigrant experiences. Mukherjee has shown that immigrants can assimilate themselves into the American culture, but if they resist cultural changes, they should not be forced to go away from America in any way by implementing any new rules which may be a betrayal. Mukherjee has expressed this by mentioning her personal experience in America.
This essay talks about Mukherjee's personal experience and the transformation that she finds in her life because of her stay in America. The title of the essay states that there are two ways to belong in America. One is to become an expatriate hoping to be back to their home country one day , and another is to become an immigrant by accepting every rule and regulation, culture, lifestyle and everything of the settled land .
"Two Ways to Belong in America" is a story of two sisters from Calcutta, Mira and Bharati, who are alike in appearance and attitude. They dressed alike, in saris. Both of them had identical views on politics, social issues, love, and marriage before they moved to America to pursue their further study. Both sisters had planned that they would return to India after the completion of their higher study in America and would marry the grooms their father would choose for them; however, everything did not go as planned. Later they found themselves standing on two different sides in the debates over the status of immigrants in America.
Mira went to America in 1960 to study child psychology and pre-school education whereas following her after one year, Bharati moved to the US to pursue creative writing. After two years, Mira married an Indian student in 1962 and got the labour certificate which is necessary for the green card to live legally and comfortably there. She lived there for more than 36 years with Indian citizenship, hoping that she would be back in her home country one day after her retirement. On the other hand side, Bharati married outside of her culture with her fellow student in 1963, an American of Canadian parentage. After being in a married relationship with a Canadian-American man, she knew that she had to face the emotional strain and was ready for that. She welcomed her new life: she explored herself in a new way. By choosing her husband against her father's selection, she opted for fluidity (transformation) and self-invention. She transformed herself from a sari to blue jeans and T-shirts. By doing so, she ruined her 3,000 years old caste-observation and lived in every part of North America. Her scholarly pieces have often been perused as proud writings for cultural and psychological "mongrelization" in that every text reflects that she does not feel sorry for what she has done.
Since they were the single blood relative of each other, they stayed close over phone conversations. Although both sisters have different opinions now, they still maintained polite conversation. They pitied one another. Mira sympathized with Bharati for her marriage out of her ethnic community which is erasing Indianness and unstructured lifestyle while Bharati sympathized with Mira for her narrow perception and superficial understanding of American society. Both have adopted America in their own ways based on their experiences there. Mira wants to maintain her Indian identity, but later Vice President Gore's "Citizenship USA" drive and the increase of illegal migration change the tone of the conversation between the two sisters. Mira felt manipulated, used and discarded by the American government. Mira expressed her dismay that how America can impose its new rules even upon the legal immigrants like me who invested her knowledge for the development of American pre-school and obeyed all the rules. If America is to apply its new rules curtailing benefits of legal immigrants, that should be imposed on those who enter America after those rules are already in place. This voice of Mira is not just of the immigrant South Asian community but of an immigrant community of the millions who have stayed rooted in one job, one city, one house, one ancestral culture, one cuisine, for the entirety of their productive years. Mira wants to stay in America but expresses her strong rejection of getting American citizenship. In her outrage, she snapped "If American wants to play the manipulative game, I'll play it, too." It proves that how passionately Mira clings to her Indian citizenship and hopes to go home to India by renouncing the temporary American citizenship. She is determined to maintain her Indianness. Even after a long stay in America; she resists an American transformation in her life there because she still feels it as a foreign country.
Contrariwise, Bharati has completely adopted the American culture and enjoys her new transformed lifestyle. she feels like a part of the new society. However, she also felt the same sense of betrayal in Canada that Mira feels in America when she went to Canada to live with her husband and was placed in a good job. In spite of her superior position in merit and job, she was discriminated against by the local Canadian society. The feel of betrayal in Canada forced many immigrants to leave the country. Because of the discriminatory behaviour of the Canadian government, she acknowledged the pain of Mira. Therefore, she felt the necessity of acquiring citizenship of the community no matter where (either in America or In Canada) she lives.
In conclusion, Bharati has sketched the difference between Mira and herself. Mira lives there happily as an expatriate Indian with a hope of returning to India after she gets retired rather than living there as an immigrant American whereas Bharati adopts the new American culture and is ready to encounter the trauma of self-transformation in order to become the part of the settled land. This trauma is experienced only by the immigrants like Bharati, but the expatriates like Mira escape this.
1. At first, how long did Mukherjee and her sister intend to stay in America? Why did they change their plans?
At first, Mukherjee and her sister intended to stay in America for two years to complete her higher education and then return to India where they would marry the grooms of their father's choosing. They changed their plans of returning to India because they married men of their own choice in America: Mira married an Indian whereas Bharati married an American of Canadian parentage.
2. What does Mukherjee mean when she says she welcomed the "emotional strain" of "marrying outside [her] ethnic community"(5)?
Mukherjee means that she was ready to face any kind of negative reaction or emotional pressure that was to come from her decision, and she was fully determined to be with her decision, no matter what may come on the way because she felt that making her own decision despite any consequences was a symbol of her strength and independence which would allow her to explore herself in a new way in the adopted culture and society.
3. In what ways is Mukherjee different from her sister? What kind of relationship do they have?
After reaching America, they had different opinions and attitudes. Bharati felt that it was not important to get stuck with her Indianness; hence, she embraced every aspect of American society to feel like a part of that society whereas her sister, Mira valued her Indian background more than anything; thus, she passionately clung to her Indian citizenship. However, they were very loving towards each other but disagreed with each other's views on citizenship.
4. Why does Mukherjee's sister feel used? Why does she say that America has "change[d] its rules in midstream" (8)?
Before Vice President Gore's "Citizenship USA", Mira was comfortable living in America legally but without citizenship. She was able to maintain her Indianness without feeling any pressure to give up her nationality or leave the country. She has honestly done her job there. She has invested a great deal of time, energy and love into her work there, but now due to the implementation of the new rule caused by Gore's "Citizenship USA", she has felt a risk of losing her Indian citizenship and stability unless she becomes an American citizen. When she says that America has "change[d] its rules in midstream", she means that the new laws for immigration should only be imposed on those who enter America after those rules are already in place.
5. According to Mukherjee, how is her sister like all immigrants who "have stayed rooted in one job, one city, one house, one ancestral culture, one cuisine, for the entirety of their productive years" (12)?
According to Mukherjee, her sister - Mira - is like all immigrants because she has a strong attachment and passion for her Indian identity despite living in America for a long time (36 years). She does not have any interest to assimilate herself into the American culture by acknowledging new rules in operation.
Purpose and Audience
1. What is Mukherjee's thesis? At what point does she state it?
The core idea of Mukherjee's writing is that nobody can have similar experiences to others in America. Everybody experiences it differently, and accordingly, they react as well. This thing she clearly states in the line "In one family, from two sisters alike as peas in a pod, there could not be a wider divergence of immigrant experiences."
2. At whom is Mukherjee aiming her remarks? Immigrants like herself? Immigrants like her sister? General readers? Explain.
At a glance, it seems that Mukherjee's remarks are aimed at her sister, Mira as she passionately maintains her Indian root but in fact, her remarks may have targeted other immigrants like herself because she seems to have understood Mira's decision of retaining her Indianness at the end of the essay when she faced the discriminatory behaviour of the Canadian government. Her realization of the validity of resisting citizenship may help others who also have the same views as Mukherjee had to understand the importance of citizenship.
3. What is Mukherjee's purpose? Is she trying to inform? To move readers to action? To accomplish something else? Explain.
The purpose of this essay is to inform rather than something else as Mukherjee has tried to convey the message to her readership that there cannot be a common and universal immigrant experience no matter what their geographical or family background is; hence, each immigrant's dreams and perspective of things are different from each other.
Style and Structure
1. What basis for comparison exists between Mukherjee and her sister? Where in the essay does Mukherjee establish this basis?
After having a minute reading of some beginning paragraphs, the establishment of the basis of comparison between the two sisters is noticed. Both sisters planned to live in the US for the same period of time (two years) to complete their higher education and then return to India. Mukherjee mentioned similarities between them before coming to the US, but when they got married in the US, they stay longer and they shared different views based on their immigrant experiences.
2. Is this essay a point-by-point or a subject-by-subject comparison? Why do you think Mukherjee chose the strategy she did?
This essay is a point-by-point comparison. Mukherjee has chosen specific points to compare her experiences and her sister's experiences. She talks about each specific point to highlight each other's experiences; for example, their views on maintaining nationality, American culture, marriage outside their ethnic community, Vice President Gore's "Citizenship USA" and the like. This pattern of comparison is appropriate here to compare each other's experiences wherever they vary in their lives.
3. What points does Mukherjee discuss for each subject? Should she have discussed any other points?
The points Mukherjee discusses are each sister's marriage, their views on Indian culture and heritage, retaining citizenship, and the choice to embrace American culture and lifestyle. These are the points that Mukherjee considers time and again throughout the entire essay as she finds her views have shifted over time with the country's changing views on immigration.
4. What transitional words and phrases does Mukherjee use to signal shifts from one point to another?
The transitional words and phrases that Mukherjee uses are "Instead... (3)", "I realize... (12)", and "Nearly 20 years ago... (13)".
5. How effective is Mukherjee's conclusion? Does it summarize the essay's major points? Would another strategy be more effective? Explain.
Mukherjee's conclusion is effective. She has concluded that no matter how different experiences one has as an immigrant, s/she has to face challenges. To stay in America comfortably, immigrants must change themselves to get assimilated into the new society. In Mukherjee's case, she has willingly adopted the new culture: the change came more willingly in her. It does never mean that she did not face challenges in Canada and that event made Mukherjee realize that challenges are almost certain to come in the life of immigrants. In her sister's case, Mira was forced to gain citizenship of America which she never wished for. She is happier to live in America as an expatriate Indian and never puts her roots down. Therefore, she avoids the trauma of self-transformation.
1. Define each of the following words as it is used in this selection.
2. What, according to Mukherjee, is the difference between an immigrant and an exile (15)? What are the connotations of these two words? Do you think the distinction Mukherjee makes is valid?
The term "immigrant" is used for the people like herself in America who is ready to assimilate into the new cultural and social structure, and the term "exile" is for immigrants like her sister who passionately clings to her Indian heritage. Mukherjee states that if someone is reluctant to assimilate themselves into the new structure, they are exiled from the new country. This distinction Mukherjee draws in the rest of her essay and is, therefore, an appropriate way to phrase it.
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TWO WAYS TO BELONG IN AMERICA
Born in 1940 in Calcutta, India, novelist Bharati Mukherjee immigrated to the United States in 1961 and earned an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in literature. Now a naturalized U.S. citizen, she teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. Her fiction often explores the tensions between the traditional role of women in Indian society and their very different role in the United States.
“ Two ways to belong in America” first appeared in the New York Times. It was written to address a movement in Congress to take away government benefits from resident aliens (foreigners). This is about the issues that confront all immigrants in America.
In America, it is a common misconception that all foreigners are similar; it is believed that they all have similar dreams and each of them end up chasing after the same jobs. However, this is not the case. Not only do immigrants from different countries hold different dreams, but those with a shared background even have varying hopes and dreams for the future. This is evidenced in Bharati Mukherjee’s essay. She utilizes several rhetorical strategies in order to show that immigrants have the ability to be assimilated (adapted) into the American culture, but that they should not be deported if they choose not to follow to said culture.
In Two ways to belong in America , Bharati Mukherjee talks about two sisters (Mukherjee and her sister Mira) who moved to the United States in the 1960s. Both sisters moved to United States in hope to pursue their dreams and to achieve their goals with college and further education. Bharati and Mira had similarities in appearance and religious beliefs, but their lives ended up going down different paths. They had planned to go back to India after their education to marry the men their father had chosen for them. However, they did not go as planned. Bharati married a Canadian American man and became an American Citizen, despite the culture she was born into. On the other hand, Mira married an Indian man and obtained her green card.
Over the years, both the sisters have adopted to America in different ways and have formed different beliefs based on their experiences. Mira wants to maintain her Indian identity. She beliefs that the immigration laws should only apply to those that go to America after the rules have been implemented. In outrage, she tells her sister, “ If America wants to play the manipulative game, I’ll play it too ”. By getting a temporary American identity, she proves that she is willing to play the game that America has thrown in her way. This will only be for the time she stays in America; she loves her country and will eventually denounce the American citizenship and go back home. Unlike her sister, Bharati has adopted to the American community and feels like a part of it. She compares the situation in America to the one that she faced in Canada, where the government turned against the immigrants. Therefore, through her experience in Canada she understands the betrayal her sister feels; that is why she has already acquired American Citizenship.
Regardless of the immigration struggles both sisters went through, they remained close and they did not let their divergent thought get in the way of their relationship. Both sisters know that they have sacrificed their beliefs and values to be where they are and hope others will not have to go through what they have experienced.
This essay shows the parallelism between what different immigrants think of moving to the United States from their home country. Some embrace the change and are excited to adopt new cultures, while others are scared and wish to hang on their culture. Mukherjee Adopted the American culture and she says “ America spoke to me – I married it ” while her sister Mira argues “ some kind of irrational attachment to India that I don’t to America ”. According to Mukherjee, Mira is a pleasant well-educated woman that has deliberately not adopted the American culture, despite the posed requirements on immigrants. She states that her sister is “ professionally generous and creative, socially courteous and gracious. She is here to maintain an identity, not to transform it. ” Mira felt to the American Dream, she remained true to what she was and never lost the Indian background.
The author presents struggles faced by immigrants in their quest for an American Dream. The tone of the essay is reflective and sympathetic while the style adopted is an anecdote (personal). Mukherjee reflects her life and compares it to the sisters through a persuasive voice.
The essay structure shows the emotional development of Mira. Bharati writes about how they have kept good relations though they differ very much. Then she shows what each sister thinks of one another in their heart. This comes after she describes how Mira was angry after she knew about anti-immigration bill.
There are two ways to belong in America. The first is means that either have a green card and be a citizen. Another way is to fit in with society and to feel as if you belong. But to belong to America requires also to be able to live an independent life.
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