by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
The first time I visited America, it was 1988, and I was just 12 years old. I came with my older brother and my mum and dad, who had saved for years to give us one of those classic American vacations. We went to Disney World and had our picture taken with Mickey Mouse. We went to see Sea World and met baby Shamu. And of course we went to New York City, where my father took us to see the Statue of Liberty. It was cinematic, like the films I had grown up watching.
I returned to New York as a young man, as a student in the U.S. for the summer. I remember looking around and realizing just how many different types of people there were in New York. (It was much more diverse than where I had grown up.) I walked across Manhattan, ate a hog dog, and watched four cops from two different divisions have an all-out argument on the street. It was like a scene from the American police procedurals we watched on TV back home. I walked all the way from Harlem to an art gallery in midtown Manhattan, stopping at a tiny Jamaican café to get a bite to eat en route. Every moment was a story I could tell my friends as soon as I got home. It really did feel like a montage from the movies.
After a few days, I took an Amtrak train from Central Station to Chicago. It was an overnight journey, but I spent most of my time in the smoking carriage. That’s where people stayed up late to chat. It was a lively scene, and it happened to be the Fourth of July. America was just too exciting to go to sleep.
I’ve always loved that Americans like to talk. They’re less shy to spark a conversation than we are in the UK, and seem interested in knowing where you come from. They ask about your heritage. In the smoking car, knowing I was from Britain, a fellow passenger assumed I was a fan of the Beatles. But I hadn’t really listened to the Beatles at all! I told them I was more into New York hip hop that we loved so much in London: Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh crew, Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys (alongside Bhangra, the Cure, and Adam and the Ants). Weirdly, I was the only boy where I grew up who seemed to be into Motown music. I only had one Motown cassette tape, so in New York I bought some mix tapes from a guy who was selling them on a street corner. He had a boom box attached to this wheelchair, and he blasted out tunes while passersby would dance and sing along. This is the kind of thing I still love about big city America.
After an early career in education, the arts, social justice, and peacebuilding, I was offered a fellowship to come to the United States to study at UNC-Chapel Hill. After all the paperwork, the last thing to do was obtain my student visa at the U.S. embassy in London. Looking around for the building, I could see the embassies of France, Germany, and Spain. They looked like town houses, whereas the U.S. embassy was a giant fortress with armed guards. From the outside, it was intimidating. But after moving through security, when you were inside, everyone was so personable and welcoming.
I arrived in Raleigh with just two (very full) suitcases. I had packed some smart pants and a nice shirt in preparation to meet my new professor. When we met at Starbucks, and she wore sweatpants, I realized Americans are a bit less formal than us Brits. As I began my studies, I felt anxious about fitting in and making friends. The work was intense and there were some difficult moments. I struggled a bit but my teachers reminded me that it was my experience they were interested in, not necessarily my qualifications. One professor encouraged me to think about studying Americans as “the other.” As a Brit, and as a person of color with an accent, I was in an interesting position to observe and ask questions. She encouraged me to think about how my work could help the nation to speak to itself and understand its own stories and potential.
This resonated with me and my past experiences as an outsider or “other” in the West of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Spain, and Colombia, all places I had worked. I had facilitated programs and roundtable conversations around issues of historical sectarian divisions, racial tension, and violence, helping people be in dialogue to envision a better story for themselves and for their communities.
In North Carolina, I wasn’t the most astute academic student, but I brought a lot of experience and curiosity to the table. My professor encouraged me to gain experience — to do ethnographies, work with farmers, and tailgate at football games. These were new experiences for me, and I felt wide awake. I talked with people in a homeless shelter to learn how displaced people think of home. I observed the Occupy Wall Street movement and performed a spoken-word poem with protesters. Before I began, I looked up and saw a big star-spangled banner waving in the air and realized my associations with that flag were starting to feel different. I was beginning to see in my mind’s eye not just those iconic cinematic images that I had grown up with, but a greater diversity of people, places, and ideas.
Since then, I’ve been invited to give talks in places like South Carolina country clubs where Robert Lee’s portrait hangs on the wall, and in traditional African American performance venues and churches. I’ve had the chance to offer my respects to indigenous elders on behalf of my ancestors. I’ve helped communities discuss contested symbols including the Confederate flag and monuments. At some point, I finally stopped noticing people’s accents, and they stopped noticing mine. Coming from an urban background, I was surprised when a friend referred to me as a “rural practitioner.” But I’ve embraced Appalachia as my own and find myself, at times, defending the South and the stereotypes people use to ridicule this place I call home. What I have learned everywhere I’ve lived and worked is that no one story ever defines a place. We need to hear them all.
Across the world, from China, across Europe, and through Africa, people have built monuments that we see over and over again on postcards and in movies and our mind’s eye. These are the images we see on Wikipedia and associate with places that we don’t necessarily know very well. As a kid, I thought of America as the Statue of Liberty, but now I associate this country with the image of the humble kitchen table. I think of hospitality, and how most Americans welcome newcomers and feel curious about people who are different from them. I’ve been invited to many a dinner and potluck (my favorite kind of gathering), and shared many stories with the people who I’ve invited to my house to sample my spicy cooking. Our ability to share the traditions and stories that we bring from all over the world here in one place together is what makes this nation so unique—and I genuinely believe it’s the country’s greatest asset. I feel a responsibility to nurture and contribute to that. Collectively, we have to make sure there’s room for everyone to grab a seat at the table, and that everyone feels welcome enough to share.