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Carmela Aquino: Fresh Off the Boat

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

I spent my first Fourth of July in the United States in Washington, D.C. as a curious, sometime summer resident of the district. At the time, I was perhaps a month into this town, a little under a year into this country, and what other international friends joke about as being “fresh off the boat,” having been born and raised in the Philippines. Watching the festivities—the fireworks, the fierce patriotism engulfing the city—felt foreign to me, and momentarily, I wondered if I would ever feel for America what I felt for my country.

That was four years ago. At last year’s Fourth of July, I found myself back in D.C., settling into work and a life here I’d come to call my own. That day, I looked around, and it surprised me to find how far (literally) I’ve come, and how I’d come to fall for this country. Though I was brought up to believe in the possibilities that come with opportunity, I think I am only just beginning to realize exactly what that means. Perhaps, this is the American dream.

I am not saying everything about America is all good. There is the sensationalism, a culture of constant consumption, an overabundance of reality TV—the list never ends. But for all that, America is still the best model for a working democracy out there. I come from what is considered to be one of the most free and democratic Southeast Asian nations, yet to this day, our elections continue to be marred by violence and fraud, our government considered corrupt, and our society still divided by massive inequality. To watch and study the midterm and presidential elections over the past few years here as they unfolded was a gift. I have never before seen people believe so much in their power to move government and truly feel a vote could be a chance to say something.

What it is to be able to speak and be heard, to truly feel like you are making a tangible difference—I cannot underscore enough how much that means. Liberty, freedom, opportunity—these ideals forming the most fundamental idea America is founded on are what draw people half a world over to this country.

But America is nothing without its Americans. If I am taken by what this country stands for, it is because of people I’ve encountered, peers who’ve taught me the value of engagement, colleagues who are passionate about public policy, and every immigrant I’ve met who’s come here trying to make something out of nothing.

And for all that, to be watching America invent and reinvent itself, for everything I am learning here, for even just a glimpse into the workings of this massive democracy, I am grateful.

Image by dbking

Camela Aquino manages online communications at AEI.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.