Last night I walked down the street to the neighborhood theater (what up big city living), and saw the debut performance of Eric Liu’s Citizen Who.
As an immigrant myself, I loved Liu‘s mediation on what it means to be an American citizen. Like all good storytellers, he interspersed personal stories rich with detail and surprise turns with broad summarizes that brought together the disparate threads of theory and history. The same story – that of how his mother came to the US, for example – was told multiple ways, and through that telling the audience saw the slippery category of citizenship, the way immigrants, or those who look like immigrants can suddenly become “foreign until proven otherwise” or exist in a perpetual in-between-ness of tenuous belonging (to paraphrase Liu).
Since we’re such a new country, and have little common history, customs or beliefs to bring us together (at most, the eldest of our lineages are only about 14 generations), belonging is the central tenet of the American dream. But belonging is both a legal status (Never give up your US passport!) but also a social status (Do you look American?). Liu points out that citizenship, while repeatedly mentioned in our beloved Constitution, is never once defined. In times of doubt, those who were once citizens can suddenly become a “non-alien” or “other”. So this “we” of “we the people” cuts both ways: we, as citizens, are responsible for what we have done and accomplished. Both the horrible and the great. We are one nation, indivisible, despite all that divides us. “In” and “out” are not the only categories here; because of our “color-coded legacy” (Liu’s spot-on word choice ), sometimes citizens and non-citizens not only look alike, but are sometimes the same person. We may have the right papers, but can still be treated as an outsider.
One non sequitur in my notes that I have been mulling over: Freedom is made up of simple pleasures. No matter the context of the suffering, people dream of escaping to experience the same things: mouth-watering meals, the sensation of soft touch, light and airy gatherings with laughter.
One particularly riveting question Liu posed was: When is loyalty dissent, and when is dissent loyalty? What is the threshold for us to participate? As equal parts patriotic and dissatisfied citizen, I appreciated Liu’s call to participate in our democracy, to contribute to our community as a way of rekindling, reviewing, reigniting our citizenship vows. What if we earned our citizenship, rather than were given it by birthright? What if it were renewable, based on whether one participated, served the common good? We are, after all, responsible for our own country.