What It Means to be an American in 2018
It was spring in Afghanistan, the opium crop had already been harvested, and all through the Kunar River valley, young boys could be seen going through the fields cutting down the dry stalks of the poppy plants, bundling them, and strapping them to their backs to carry back to the family compound to be used as fuel for cooking stoves.
I was traveling the road from Jalalabad to Asadabad, an outlaw smuggling town on the border with Pakistan largely controlled by Taliban fighters and their local allies. It was a dangerous place. A few years later, the hit documentary “Restrepo” would be filmed only a few miles away up the Korengal valley along the Pech River, where battles between the 173rd Airborne Combat Team and Taliban fighters raged for three years. Nearly 50 American soldiers would die there, along with countless Afghan fighters and civilians.
Dangerous as it was, I was able to stop along the way with my photographer and translator. Near Asadabad, we visited a compound perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the Kunar River and were greeted by the Afghan man who lived there along with his extended family. His sons dragged a rope bed and cushions into a small grove of trees for us to sit on. They served cups of tea and homemade sweets as we talked.
I was there as a reporter, so I wanted to know what their lives were like, did they have contact with the Taliban, how often they seen the American army, if there had been any fighting in the area — all the kinds of stuff reporters naturally want to know for their stories. But before I could even get my notebook out, the farmer who owned the compound started questioning me. I was the first American he and his sons had ever met, and they wanted to know all about my life back in the United States.
The first question they asked reflected their concerns with the road we had been traveling on. Little more than a dirt path, it was so pot-holed and littered with boulders fallen from the mountainsides that driving the 30 miles from Jalalabad had taken us seven hours, an average of five miles per hour.
“How is your road?” the farmer asked. His hair and beard were completely gray, and his face was burnished dark brown and deeply lined from years working in the fields. He looked to be somewhere between 60 and 70, but when I asked his age, I discovered he was only 40, nearly 20 years younger than me. “Are you able to travel to market?”
“How is your water?” he asked next. “Can you drink the water safely?”
“How many children do you have?” he asked. “How are your schools? How many wives do you have? How are your animals? How do you get money?”
Answering his questions, I discovered that nearly all of his concerns were worries of mine as well. The “road” in Hollywood where I lived, Holly Mont Drive, was crumbling from neglect. Dodging numerous potholes, you couldn’t drive much faster than five miles per hour for its entire length. The previous winter had been a warm one, and snow-melt in the Sierras was meager, so L.A. was already on a water watch, with limits on watering lawns and washing cars, and if things got worse, restrictions would be stiffer. I had only two children and one wife, which got looks of amazement and expressions of dismay from the farmer and his numerous sons. But I had had trouble finding a decent school for my daughter and pre-school for my toddler son. We had recently lost one of our cats to an attack by a pack of coyotes, so my animal situation was similar to what they faced. They needed the high mud-brick walls of their compound to protect themselves and their sheep, goats, and donkeys from marauding packs of wolves.
I had taken the risky assignment of traveling to Afghanistan because my work writing for movies and television had been harder to get, taxes in California had been going up every year, and I needed the money. The man and his sons nodded their heads in sympathy. Taxes levied by the Taliban and fighting in the area had prevented them from getting crops to market in Jalalabad, severely impacting their earnings.
We found we had more in common than we had thought.
But sitting there answering the questions of the Afghan farmer reminded me how good I had it back in Los Angeles. We had electricity and running water, I had found schools for my kids, my marriage to my wife was healthy, and although work in the movie business had been short, we were in decent shape financially.
I was finally able to ask him about their lives. As the farmer answered my questions, I heard the pride in his voice. Things were tough in the Kunar valley right then, but they were getting by. Afghanistan may have been carved out of a tribal wilderness by British mandate, but his land had been in his family for generations, for hundreds of years in fact. He was telling me what it meant to be an Afghan, and I had told him what it meant to be an American, and we understood each other perfectly, because each of us took pride in our families, in our ability to carve out a living, and in where we lived.
We were not so different after all.
I remembered my conversation with the farmer from Afghanistan as I prepared to attend the citizenship ceremony that was held today on the south lawn of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nearly 70 people raised their right hands and took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, making them naturalized citizens. They have immigrated from 30 countries in every corner of the globe — from Africa, the Middle East, Central America, Europe and the Far East. One of them is Madhi Adam, from Afghanistan. He traded his citizenship in that country to become an American today.
All of the immigrants chose to join us as citizens on a day when many of us would say America is in deep trouble. I hardly need to list the ways this is so, but just for starters, our president, Donald Trump, is threatening trade agreements and security treaties that have existed for as long as I’ve been alive. Our last election was invaded by a foreign power hostile to this country, Russia, and the Trump administration has done virtually nothing to prevent it happening again. And as disturbing as anything else, this president has severely threatened one of the very things it means to be an American — our willingness since our founding over 200 years ago to welcome the immigrants who have helped to make this country great.
According to a Washington Post, the number of people receiving visas to immigrate to the United States will drop 12 percent in President Trump’s first two years in office.
“The shift in legal immigration is a reversal of the trend under President Barack Obama. During Obama’s time in office, immigrant visas increased by 33 percent, surging to 617,752 in fiscal 2016, the highest level in decades,” according to the Post.
The reduction in immigration is not across the board, with some of the largest decreases from Muslim countries, Africa, Central Asia, Mexico and Central America, while “the flow of legal immigrants from Europe has increased slightly,” according to the Post.
We could go into why this is so, but why bother? Trump’s racism and xenophobia are not a secret. Neither is that of his “base.” If the polls are to be believed, for about 40 percent of us, making America great again largely involves taking up the welcome mat for newcomers and denigrating immigrants already here as “rapists” and “criminals” bent on destroying the country many risked their lives to join as citizens.
By contrast, I was offered accommodations and food by every family I met in Afghanistan, and the mayor of one Village in the Kunar valley whom I got to know particularly well offered me a vacant compound and a small army of helpers if I agreed to live in his village and help modernize their roads, irrigation systems, water wells and schools — in other words, if I wanted to immigrate to Afghanistan.
I told him I couldn’t accept their offer, that my home was in America. But what I took away from the Kunar valley was something severely lacking in this country at the moment: a sense of generosity and openness to others, a willingness to share not just abundance, but even limited resources, and the values of friendship and neighborliness and kindliness and toleration.
In short, I experienced in Afghanistan what it means to be an American.
So today, on this Fourth of July, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, my daughter Violet and my son Lucian and I proudly witnessed the immigrants as they took their oath of allegiance to the United States of America and become citizens.
It was a familiar ceremony to me, because I did the same thing 56 years ago in a Federal courtroom in Kansas City, Missouri. I was required to raise my right hand and take the oath of allegiance to the United States because I was born in Japan in 1947, shortly after the war, and in 1962, Japan threatened to declare me and about 12 other young Americans born there right after the war as Japanese citizens. The Department of State contacted our parents, and we were driven to various courthouses around the country and sworn in as citizens by Federal judges.
I am the sixth great grandson of Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and I stood on the lawn of his home at Monticello and witnessed the naturalization of 70 immigrants as citizens. Despite my heritage, I am an immigrant to this country, and I am a naturalized citizen, just like they now are.
Is this a great country, or what?