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Riding Shotgun: A Non-Citizen Finds His Identity as an American

I once was told by a fellow immigrant that living in America is like being in a car going on a never-ending road trip — the citizens are driving, but we new residents are riding shotgun, feet propped up on the dash, along for the ride. At its best, the years whoosh by as if you are sailing down a long stretch of open highway. But occasionally, the driver is tired, they miss the exit, and then they silently — or loudly — blame you for it.

I slid into the passenger’s seat of this beautifully convoluted joy-ride known as America more than 22 years ago. Granted, I didn’t have much of a choice. I was just a gurgling toddler when my parents stepped out of the Arrivals Terminal of Philadelphia International Airport, weathered bags in hand, to start life anew in an unknown land. Over the years, I was raised like most other immigrant children, by teetering the line between the heritage that dwelled within the walls of my home and the culture that prevailed outside of it. For breakfast, I ate Vegemite on toast, and for lunch, I had Wawa hoagies and Rita’s “wooder” ice in all of its impossibly bright shades. I knew that I was Australian, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have denied being American as well. Like everyone else, I learned in school that the Founding Fathers threw some tea into a river and won our Independence, and I knew in baseball that the bases were called bags, and a point was called not a goal, but a run scored.

It wasn’t until high-school that I realized that I was never destined to be in the driver’s seat. I remember being in 9th-grade Spanish class when a cold jolt of fear shuddered through my body as something unfamiliar grazed the back of my neck. It was fuzzy. Ticklish even. I turned around and there it was: a stingray, of the plush variety, grazing against my neck. “Guh-day, mate!” a classmate shrieked with a lackluster Australian accent. The class erupted in laughter. The backhanded prank was a reference to the stingray that had slain Australian legend Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, years before. It was that time — among others — that I realized that my story would be one that was neither wholly American, nor Australian.

I subconsciously asked myself, if I was neither of these nationalities, then what was I? And what would my place in the fabric of America be because of it? I acquiesced — accepting the idea that my inability, as a non-citizen, to participate in the most fundamental of American practices would permanently render me as an observer. I turned 18 years old. Mayors, senators, and councilmen had come and gone, and a black president from one party was replaced with a white one from another. In none of those instances did I vote. I wasn’t even driving.

But in recent years I have come to the realization that to exist as a permanent resident, as a passenger, does not need to be a docile one. One does not need to be a card-carrying citizen to be considered American — to be American means that you subscribe to the experiment of democracy and accept all of the creeds, ethnicities, and walks of life that it brings. To debate and argue, march and protest, report and write, are acts just as fundamental to American politics as the act of casting one’s ballet. Yes, the person who enters Congress or the West Wing is an American citizen by definition, but they wouldn’t get there without the hard work of people like me who cannot vote — the DACA student helping canvass door-to-door or the immigrant professor studying the polls. We are, after all, along for the ride.

James Meadows is a senior from the University of Pennsylvania studying communications and journalistic-writing, as well as reporting for The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper. He was born in Melbourne, Australia, but proudly bred in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Philadelphia Citizen.

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