Who gets to be ‘American enough’ in a nation of immigrants?

Mae Suramek
Mae Suramek

I grew up in suburban Chicago in the 1970’s with parents who were first generation immigrants. My parents always felt like visitors to this country, grateful for the opportunity to live and contribute, but almost apologetic that their accented English, ethnic foods, and Thai customs weren’t quite American enough. They worked hard to make sure that their American-born daughter was, however American enough, packing me bologna and cheese sandwiches for my school lunches instead of the rice bowls we ate at home, taking me trick or treating, and putting up Christmas trees every year despite their non-Christian faith backgrounds. When they became naturalized citizens ten years ago, they beamed with pride that they were finally American enough.

My son, Jack is a product of a father who hails from a long line of Madison county natives and a mother who is a second generation immigrant. He was born and raised in the foothills of Appalachia, lucky to be surrounded by both sets of grandparents, who influenced him greatly. His paternal grandmother lived in Madison County her whole life except for the few years she spent in Scotland when her husband was in the navy. His paternal grandfather grew up on a working cattle farm and although he ultimately became an accomplished engineer after he left the navy, he spent the last years of his life doing what he loved most – running his own cattle farm in Flemingsburg.

Jack’s childhood was a beautiful blend of Asian and Appalachian cultures. I used to get so confused when he referred to his mid-day meal as “dinner” and his last meal of the day as “supper” – something his Kentucky grandmother passed on to him. He grew up with my mom’s curry puffs and roti drizzled with sweetened milk, his granny’s salmon patties, and his great-grandpa’s holiday jam cake. At Thanksgiving, he joined hands in prayer with his Kentucky cousins and on Thai New Year, he poured holy water on the hands of his grandparents to receive their blessings. He learned to count in Thai before English, but wore “britches” long before he wore pants. And last year while he fell hopelessly in love with New York City during a holiday vacation, he came back and declared with certainty that Kentucky was still the best place on earth.

Jack turns 12 in a few weeks, and this summer there have been few things that have had the power to pull him away from his on-line Fortnite squad. Surprisingly, for a self-proclaimed gamer who has never really shown an interest in the outdoors, the promise of an afternoon kayaking the Owsley Fork Reservoir on the Jackson County line is one of them. A couple weeks ago during those glorious few days of mild temperatures and sunny skies, we rented kayaks from our local outfitter in Berea and did just that. As I watched my son, a descendant of Thais and Appalachians, float his kayak in the middle of the reservoir, it occurred to me that he was the quintessential American in a nation built by, and made of immigrants. Three generations later he didn’t have to question, and I didn’t have to prove, whether or not he was American enough. I watched him, with the same jet black hair that my father had, tilt his head back to feel the warm breeze on his face and quietly soak in the beauty of the land of his Kentucky ancestors. He clearly wasn’t a visitor.

At that near-perfect moment, I felt a twinge of guilt thinking about the hundreds of children the same age, with the same jet black hair sleeping on mats in detention centers at our borders. Children only three generations away from my son, risking everything just for the chance to have a simple, sweet childhood like his. I’m grateful for the journey that my parents took, making this life possible for my son. But I can’t help but wonder, given our current political climate, if those countless children waiting at our borders will ever be American enough to have the same opportunity.

Mae Suramek is a recovering non-profit professional turned social entrepreneur, and founder of Noodle Nirvana, a socially conscious noodle shop with a side of world peace, located in Berea, Kentucky.