by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
In the 1980s, the United Kingdom’s national rail service was notoriously slow. I was a kid then, so I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I’ve heard that if someone was late for a meeting, they could always blame it on the rail service and everyone would harumph and agree. Eventually, the company embraced its bad reputation as part of its rebranding. Instead of claiming that their service was the fastest or the best, their motto became: “British Rail: We’re getting there!”
I’ve always loved how they played to British sensibilities, almost as though the company itself became one of us. I mention it because I’ve been thinking about that motto a lot as a new American citizen, as this young nation goes through change and reaches towards its amazing potential.
The United States is an idea in motion—and we definitely have more work to do.
Since I moved here, I’ve observed the progress of socio-political movements like Occupy Wall Street. I’ve watched Black Lives Matter rise, and be suppressed, then rise again. I always look at these movements through the lens of storytelling and the desire that people have to feel heard, recognized, and understood. And I like to remind people that this is a service we can all offer one another, anywhere, at any time, for free. Sharing our stories with one another fosters a culture of empathy and helps us cultivate compassion for other people’s experiences.
The U.S. is full of these stories, bursting from struggle, perseverance, pain, sorrow, joy, celebration and more. People are striving for a better sense of themselves and of others, and for the people who lived before our own lifetimes. We even struggle to see what the world will be like for future generations we’ll never know. I think we’ll only rise to our potential as a nation when we can make room for all these stories in their multiplicity.
I learned a selection of our nation’s most iconic tales when I was studying for my U.S. citizenship test, which for me was an interview with a federal officer in Nashville. I had to memorize the answers to 100 civic questions, though I’d only be tested on 10 of them. It was a fascinating process. I learned that Benjamin Franklin helped found the nation’s first free library, that there are three branches (and six parts) of U.S. government, and that the last day you can send in your federal income tax forms is April 15th (a good reminder!). Alexander Hamilton wrote the first Federalist Papers. Susan B. Anthony fought for women’s rights. My American wife, who helped me prepare, learned a few things as well, and even our six-year-old got into it. Getting ready for this test became a family activity. I nailed my 10 questions, which was a huge relief. Afterward, we went out for Jamaican food.
The oath of allegiance ceremony was scheduled for January 26th at the courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee. I drove there with my wife and daughter the night before, choosing a hotel room close to my favorite restaurant in town, Yassin’s Falafel House. The owner, Mr. Yassin, is a Syrian American immigrant who was once voted the nicest person in America. (He truly is, and you can feel it in the food!) I’ve followed him on social media for years, and was sorry to see when his shop was smoke bombed some time ago. I’m not sure why that happened, but I can guess—and that story is just an example of the struggles that so many immigrants face in this country, even when they’re beloved in their communities.
Loaded up with carryout coffees (and a muffin for my daughter), we walked a few blocks in the early hours of the dark winter morning. We had all dressed for the occasion. I wore a shirt and tie with a suit jacket and smart pants. My wife was dressed up, and Mirabel, who is six, wore a beautiful mermaid dress and a shiny tiara.
In the waiting room before the ceremony, I was handed a letter from President Biden. This was part of everyone’s welcome package, and in it the president talked about being part of, and contributing to, an idea. It reminded me of my experience obtaining a green card. There was a plaque of Ronald Reagan on the wall that read: “We draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world.” I have to tell you, it felt like Ronald Reagan was speaking directly to me. Ten years and two Subarus later, the magic of the mountains surrounding the International Storytelling Center have become my home.
At the ceremony in Knoxville, there were 150 of us from 51 different countries. After the official opening (which felt a lot like a board meeting), our names were read out loud, one by one. It reminded me of my undergraduate graduation, but this was better. I received a certificate, a handshake, and a little American flag as I walked offstage. Eight or nine women from the Daughters of the American Revolution greeted us and invited us to join them for juice and cookies. I could see how genuine their welcome was, and Mirabel enjoyed getting lots of attention for her outfit. I registered to vote and did an impromptu interview with a local TV station. It was a really uplifting experience.
After the ceremony, we visited the candy store and had lunch before we drove home. In India, there’s a tradition that when something new occurs—a celebratory moment or a new beginning—you eat something sweet as a blessing for the journey. So later in the day, we all shared our candy.
Often, the stories we see on TV or read about on the internet suggest that we, as a nation, are divided. It’s easy to take that as a matter of fact. My fellow Americans, I can say that it’s not! There is much more to what is going on if we can learn how to listen in new ways and respect the sensibilities of all our neighbors.
I take my opportunity to contribute to our shared idea of the United States very seriously. I feel committed to helping people and elevating the storytelling potential of this nation, so we can cultivate a culture of listening to one another and embracing diverse traditions. As a country, we still have a lot of difficult work to do to bring healing, validation, and recognition to difficult stories that have been suppressed or intentionally ignored. We need to get to know the people where we live and learn more stories about this place we all call home.
I really do believe it’s an idea worth striving for. To borrow a motto: We’re getting there!