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OPINION | AMERICAN VALUES

The Reluctant Patriot

October 21, 2001|CHITRA DIVAKARUNI | Chitra Divakaruni is the author of "The Unknown Errors of Our Lives" and "The Mistress of Spices."

SAN FRANCISCO — I'm not a bumper-sticker kind of girl. My car fenders are pristinely blank; no cute knick-knacks hang from my rearview mirror; my T-shirts are expanses of solid color unmarred by logos or humorous sayings. I look disdainfully on my neighbor for hanging on his house a sign decorated with chipmunks (chipmunks?!) that declares "The Waterfords Live Here." Once, I confess, I did buckle to familial pressure and stick a banner on my car's rear window proclaiming that my child had made the honor roll at West View Elementary. But I attached it lightly, to the outside, with inferior quality tape, and was glad when the wind snatched it away.

I have this old-fashioned belief that a private life should be just that--private. That values and convictions are to be lived, not displayed.

But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, I found myself putting up an American flag on my house, just like my neighbors--the Waterfords, the Chans and the Siddiqis--had done.

It was a first time for me, and I was surprised by how moved I was. Holding that rectangle of red, white and blue in my hand made me realize how much America, the country I had come to as an unthinking, 19-year-old immigrant from India, meant to me. How over the years the values it stood for--liberty, equality, justice, tolerance, the pursuit of happiness for all--had seeped into me and shaped me. How I was prepared to fight, in my own quiet way, to uphold these values. I thought of so many of us, all across America, putting up flags to show our love for our country and our sorrow for its dead--who were our dead, too--and was struck by a rare and powerful sense of community.

But under my patriotic fervor, genuine as it is, there are other, more ambivalent feelings. I've been aware, since Sept. 11, of the backlash in this country against people who are or, to the uninitiated eye, look Islamic or Middle Eastern. My own South Asian community has suffered from hate crimes and racial profiling. Sikhs in turbans and beards have been beaten and even shot to death; women in veils have been called terrorist bitches; businessmen in suits and ties have been asked to get off airplanes because their skin color made the crew nervous. The other day, outside our local grocery, a man shouted at my children and me, using an obscenity I won't repeat, "Ay-rabs, go home!"

Our community has taken precautions. Community leaders have advised people not to wear ethnic clothing, not to go out at night, not to go to places alone. A widely circulated e-mail advised us, if accosted, to make the peace sign and say, loudly, "God bless America." It also advised us to put up flags (preferably large and expensive ones) at our homes, at our places of business and on our cars "to prove to the American people that you are on their side."

The American people? Excuse me, I am the American people. I thought their side was my side.

My flag (a small, inexpensive one) isn't in response to that e-mail, but still, as I put it up, I am struck by the fact that no matter how long I--or my California-born children--live in this country, whenever there is a major conflict with another nation, we will be looked at with suspicion. It was so during the Iranian hostage crisis. It was so during the Persian Gulf War. My Japanese American friends recall, with bitterness, the internment camps; my Chinese American friends the more recent spy-plane debacle. And whenever it happens, we--the Americans who don't appear American--must shoulder the burden of proving our patriotism. Or else.

As I put up my flag, I wonder if a little bit of that fear--that "or else"--isn't behind my action today. I wonder if the flag isn't my equivalent of the mark the Jews of Moses' time put on their homes so that the dark angel would recognize them and pass them by. Because the henchmen of that angel are around, again. I've seen them roar down the quiet streets of our ethnic neighborhood, mostly young men, mostly in pickup trucks, mostly people who don't live here, whose faces I don't know. They honk and yell and swerve dangerously toward the pavement when they see people they don't like the looks of. Their bumpers sport stickers that shout "BIN LADEN'S ASS IS OURS." Their antennae sport American flags flapping fiercely in the patriotic rush of their passing. Are they part of the reason my Afghan neighbors, women in hijab who used to wave shy hellos to me as we walked our children to school, haven't been seen on the street for the past few weeks? Why one of their husbands collects all the neighborhood Afghan children in his van and drops them off just before the school bell rings?

As I put up my flag, I see a small movement in the window of the house catty-corner from mine. Someone's watching me from a crack in the blinds. Perhaps it's Nadia, the woman who lives there. I wonder what she thinks of my action, if it worries her. If in her mind my flag--and thus, I--am associated with those other flag-upholders, vigilant protectors of the American way of life.

I step down and look up at my flag. In spite of all my doubts, it is beautiful, and I am proud that we belong to each other. I think I will leave it up there even after this crisis ends (may it be soon, and as peacefully as possible). I will leave it up there as a reminder that many kinds of Americans live in this country, and we must make a place for all of them under our flag. That skin color has nothing to do with patriotism, or the lack of it. And that we cannot truly love our country unless we love our fellow countrymen and women. All of them.

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