NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J., (U-WIRE) — Perhaps the greatest advantage and the greatest disadvantage of the United States of America are one in the same. We are a huge melting pot of a country, as the cliche goes: a young nation of immigrants. We are the only country in the world that boasts of a population so uniquely different. There is no common color, religion or nationality.
It is this diversity that makes America a beautiful tapestry of differing ethnicities, but that also threatens to tear apart daily life. This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality of our nation becomes more readily apparent to me every day as I walk around our supposedly open-minded campus and see people so involved with their ethnic cliques that they will not acknowledge or speak to anyone who does not look like them or speak their native language.
This sectionalism is bothersome because it is exactly the opposite of the direction in which we should be going. As the world gets smaller with the aid of technological progress, and as countries that were once at odds becoming allies, people within our country are isolating themselves from their fellow Americans. We are losing the only common denominator that we ever had with each other: a love for this country and a love for the dream and promise of better things to come.
My mother’s father came to Ellis Island as a 12-year-old boy from the highlands of northern Greece. He never went back. In Greece, there was no opportunity, he realized. It was in America where he had put in years of work, opened a successful business and become a pillar of the largely Irish, Greek and Italian community on the north shore of Massachusetts, where he lived. Obviously, this did not come for free.
He spent countless hours away from home working and attending night school so he could be as proficient in English as he was in the three other languages he spoke. He thought of himself as an American first, before anything else.
The assimilation of immigrants into American life and culture during the early part of this century was much more commonplace than it is today. Immigrants worked to partake of the upward mobility that was possible, and they familiarized themselves with the English language and the American political system, voting as much as they could, fascinated and thrilled with the concept of “one man, one vote.”
My father’s parents, natives of the Aegean Isles of Greece, had a framed picture of FDR next to the framed painting of “The Last Supper” on their dining room wall when my father was a child. The most endearing characteristic about immigrants such as my grandparents is that they never once expected anything to be given to them for free. They did not wait for handouts, they did not expect people to speak Greek to them for their convenience and their pride would not let them do any job in a half-assed way.
Many people love to dwell on sob stories, such as: “My (fill in the family relation) only came here with five dollars and a picture of the family left behind in the Old World.” To that, I say, “Too bad.” I guarantee you there is a story like that in everyone’s past. And that is exactly what it is — the past. Now is the time for parents to pass on pride in America to their children, to teach them not to “rip off Uncle Sam,” but instead be willing to fight for this country, both physically and ethically. We need to coalesce as a society, and this takes people willing to throw off the crosses they bear for generations past before they stumble and fall like Hemingway’s old man with his albatross.
As we become more splintered as a society, leaning on the useful crutches of our ethnicities as an excuse for not throwing ourselves more wholeheartedly into America, we need a common something. Since a common national background is impossible and a common national religion is unconstitutional, we should at least all be able to communicate with one another in the same common language.
Two weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that the Clifton City Council voted to make English the official language of municipal government in that town. The government will never be able to mandate unity and societal cohesiveness, but this sure as hell is a step in the right direction. People should not have to be versed in a score of different languages to be able to communicate with the people they meet in everyday life. I do not care in the least what language people speak in their own homes, nor am I advocating some sort of “language police” to weed out foreigners. All I am asking is for the expectation that as Americans, we will all speak the same language.
In many states, driving tests and voting ballots are available in many languages. Road signs in this country are in English. Politicians in this country speak English. So doesn’t it make sense that these privileges should be administered in the same language? By passing a bill making English our national language, Congress would be sending a clear message to new arrivals to America that they must assimilate and weave themselves somehow into the fabric of American life as generations of immigrants did before them. This will by no means force us into blissful harmony with one another, but perhaps it might give us a nudge in the right direction to feel that we are all invested in this land, no matter what we look like or where our roots trace back to. I know that when someone asks me where my grandparents came to the United States from, I reply, “Greece.” If someone asks where I am from, I say, “the South.” And there is only one answer if anyone asks me what I am. I am American.
Christon Halkiotis’ column originally appeared in Tuesday’s Rutgers University paper, the Daily Targum.