Immigrants, natives need to keep discovering America

HOW old was that crinkled, folded printout? I twisted my head, puzzling, trying to stay unnoticed.

On the left, English; on the right, Spanish? It could be Portuguese. The questions and answers seemed elementary, but the woman studied them intently.

Who elects Congress? The citizens elect Congress.

How many stripes are on the flag? There are 13 stripes on the flag.

What is the capital of New York State? Albany.

But a few answers stood out. William Cohen was the Secretary of Defense in the'90s, and Colin Powell wasn't Secretary of State until 2001; why would both of these mistakes be on her study sheet? Who had last updated them, and when?

Helping her pass the citizenship exam was worth breaking the taboo of speaking to strangers on the subway. After the hello, I pointed out, "Some of those are wrong."

She nodded, considered the point, and asked me to correct the errors. I took out a pen and sounded out "Donald Rumsfeld" and "Condoleezza Rice" as I wrote them on her paper, of course misspelling "Condoleezza" (sorry, Dr. Rice).

Then she pointed to an answer further up the page.

Who discovered the USA?

Christopher Columbus.

"Is this still right?" she asked.

Man, oh, man, all the things I wanted to say. Before any white people from Europe came along, indigenous people lived in North America, variously called Native Americans, American Indians, and Indian-no-the-other-one. But if they came over on the now-underwater land bridge from Asia, does that mean they discovered America? Leif Ericson came along before Columbus, but he hit Canada. And no one "discovered" the United States anyway; we created the USA, and we create it every day, no matter who was first on North American soil.

But I didn't want to try her patience or her limited English, and would it help her anyway?

"Yes, we still believe that," I replied.

We went through the rest of her catechism. I majored in political science in college, so I felt embarrassed when I couldn't answer the not-so-frequently-asked questions. The names of state officials? The meanings of red, white and blue?

And some questions were complicated. Who has the power to declare war? The Constitution gives that right to Congress, but recently presidents have used sneaky workarounds to get troops into battles of choice. Where does freedom of speech come from? What is a citizen's most important right? Those are essay questions if I ever heard them. I should ask my father whether he got that question, and what he answered.

I barely remember the day my dad became a citizen. My sister and I were little kids watching "Magnum, P.I." on a black-and-white TV in the kitchen while my mom cooked. Dad came home and announced it, but I don't remember any squeals of glee.

I'd have stronger memories if my parents thought Americanness was good. Throughout my childhood, they told me that I wasn't American, but Indian. It drove me crazy that they used "American" and "white" interchangeably; the U.S. population is now two-thirds white, but that leaves 98 million nonwhite residents, including me, who might think of ourselves as American.

And besides, my parents showed that they were American by coming here. They showed initiative in changing their lives, the American way, the way immigrants always do. The U.S. exists the way it does because people like my parents come, change it, are changed by it.

I feel American. I only speak English well, with a U.S. accent. I'm proud of the founding fathers and Martin Luther King Jr. and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I can answer almost all the questions on that naturalization exam, which is more than a lot of native-born citizens could say. And when I come back to the U.S. from visiting another country, I feel relieved to be home.

But I don't feel American, because I don't keep my shoes on in the house and fast food disgusts me, and I'm always feeling disoriented and alienated, and I don't know how much of that is being a neurotic weirdo and how much is being only-kinda-American.

Being the U.S.-born child of immigrants feels like showing up late for class, missing homeroom, playing catch-up while learning the protocols. What's it like to just know about garters, sleepovers and different kinds of meat without having learned them consciously?

Book smarts come easily to me; street smarts I have to work at. I study in the subway, like the woman I helped, discovering the USA.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at