Personal Voices: America's New Mood

My office used to be a friendly, open place, always ready for a lively debate. Now, we sit in clumps, divided in our opinions, unsure of how to deal with those who think differently. We sit in our little groups, hunched over our computers, silently reading the websites we choose to read -- some alternative, others conservative. We hold hushed conversations on the phone with our friends and families, hesitant to share our views too loudly, even though it is quite well known who belongs to which camp. When we meet in the hallways, we smile, we nod -- we talk about the Oscars, the gorgeous spring weather we are having in New York. And we quickly move on.

In the new mood that has consumed America over the past months, the notion of patriotism has taken on a different meaning. There is only one so-called "cause," it seems, and if you do not unequivocally support it, then you are a traitor, a dissenter, a pariah. It seems you don't have the right to belong here anymore.

Surely, it wasn't always like this. In fact, I remember it as being very different just a few years ago, when I first arrived in 1995 in search of a place where I "belong." I am an Indian with a Malaysian passport, who was raised in Geneva, Switzerland. While I was fortunate to benefit from an international education, to learn different languages, to identify with bits and pieces of everyplace, I never had one place that I could call my own -- where all the elements that make me up could come together and make sense as a whole.

I found what I was looking for in the States, in New York City. Here, everyone was from everywhere, and it didn't matter. You could walk down the streets wearing a sari, a kilt or a muumuu, and no one would look twice at you (if anyone did, it was more out of admiration for your diversity than anything else). You could think as you wanted to think, say what you wanted to say -- you'd always find someone on the same page as you, or at any rate, people up for debate. In New York, I could be my Indian self or my European self, or both, and there were people to understand me, to bond with, to argue and debate with.

In my own little way, I started to belong to this great city. I gave it my cultural nuances; it gave me a sense of oneness, a place to put down roots. Finally, I had found a home.

"This is where I want to stay, this where I feel like I belong," I emphatically told my boss and the head of human resources at my company when they asked why I wanted to be sponsored for a green card. "This place has become my home, I don't want to leave."

And so I stayed on, and in due course got my green card. I got married, I had a son.

Many people argue that New York is really not America. If it isn't, then the change that happened with Sept. 11, 2001 is all the more disturbing. That day, a door opened, and a cold draught blew in, catching hold of this country, this city. The door could not be shut.

All of a sudden, confusion reigned. Arabs, Sikhs, Indians, Pakistanis, many of us long-time residents of this city, were in the public eye. My husband, an Iranian, was looked over suspiciously by cops, and a woman got up to change her seat when he sat down next to her on the bus. Old men sitting on a park bench one sunny afternoon as I took my son for a walk called me a "dirty Arab" and told me to "go home."

At work, too, things had changed. Those I had thought of as accepting of difference, as being able to look beneath the surface at the underlying reasons for things, were rapidly retreating into their shells.

One day, a few weeks after the fall of the World Trade Center, I was standing with a group of colleagues in the lobby of our building. Our office is on Broadway, one block from the Trade Center, and we were there to pick up the things we'd need for the two months we'd be working at another location. One person in the group talked about the Indian news agent in the lobby, who apparently had been picked up by the FBI for questioning. My colleague said he was glad the news agent had been taken in, he had always looked suspicious to him. Several others agreed.

I am sure that for a split second, all eyes were on me. After all, I had the same color skin as the news agent, we hailed from the same origins, and I would often chat with him. Was I also suspect in their eyes, or did my colleague mention the news agent in front of me because he thought of me as no different from anyone else in the group?

I felt and still do feel a deep sense of sadness over the incidents of 9/11. After all, this is my city too. And yet, the color of my skin, my life experiences, my cultural baggage, made me different, too. Did all that mean I could not belong anymore?

I did not say anything to my colleagues that day, and through the many months that "patriotism" -- the definition of what it means to "belong" to America -- took on new meaning, I sat quietly at my desk and did not say much. I smiled when people around me talked about teaching the Iraqis, the Afghans, the "terrorists," a lesson, to show them American might, the American way; I held quiet conversations and exchanged emails with those whom I knew felt as I did.

Last Friday, my boss held a meeting in his office. He began by telling us he'd heard a rumor that Saddam Hussein had been killed, and he was happy with the news because it served all those "damn Iraqi terrorists" right. He then asked each of us to wager a bet: By how many points would the stock market rise if Saddam Hussein really were dead? The two others at the table cast their bets, my boss cast his. Their eyes were on me.

Here was the ultimate irony: I had become so much a part of this place that people thought me a part of the new, mainstream "patriotism."

But belonging to somewhere is not unidimensional, and it never was in New York. That afternoon, I refused to bet, and although my boss was visibly displeased, I stood up for what I believed in. I stood up because I wanted to show that one could be different and yet belong, that one can disagree with the "cause" but still be a part of this city, this country. I will do it more often, for I want things to go back to the way they were. I want to go back to a New York where debate is lively, where people do not have to talk in hushed groups for fear of showing their true opinions. I want to go back to the place I chose to make my home, one where the notion of "belonging" has a different meaning for everyone, no matter where they come from or what they believe in.

Savita Iyer is a financial journalist and freelance writer in New York City.


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