With chubby cheeks and out-of-style jeans I got off the plane in Detroit, Michigan, to a brand new world full of possibilities. I immediately recognized the potentials: “Really?!? We're closed Saturday AND Sunday? Che baahaal!! I love this country!!! Berim McDonalds.”
I have to admit it took me a long time to get my arms fully wrapped around this thing they called democracy, mostly due to the remoteness of Kalamazoo from everything else on this planet, and the pitfalls and distractions of adolescence in this distracting environment. Up until then I was part of a system that in most part was controlled by a single entity. With all honesty it was at a time in my life when revolution or war was a more dramatic and vivid representation of the board game Risk.
Where I came from, conversations around the dinner table were dominated by football and politics. Everyone seemed to have their opinion on the success and failure of the team and knew exactly who should and shouldn't play, and the same with world affairs. Interestingly enough as engaged and interested we seemed in these topics, there was little involvement or participation in the proper working of either. By proper I'm obviously speaking of systematic and long lasting change and progress.
Things seemed different here (aamrikaa).
My introduction to democracy came early. It was in my first or second year of high school. Joining the soccer team made my integration into the school easier and I felt somewhat accepted. As I remember, we were sitting around the table at lunch with fellow teammates. One of the boys was broadcasting with utmost authority and confidence his views on candidates running for the presidency of the United States. At some point, mostly out of boredom and partly to shut him up, I blabbered out in broken English,
“Vaat's de diference?”
With a grin on his face he turned and said, “If Reagan gets elected, they'll throw your foreign ass out of here!!”
His grasp of issues was probably close to a drowning camel but the simple threat of his statement at a somewhat vulnerable stage of my life reserved a place for it among the memorable quotes:
“You're an asshole Doug!!” (My English was certainly improving day by day.)
It wasn't that I couldn't imagine leaving this country or going back to Iran, just simply didn't like the fact that I could be kicked out, of anywhere.
As time went on my integration into this society continued. I've taken on some of the responsibilities required to be part of this functioning body. I do everything that a good citizen should do: pay taxes, recycle what I can at home and office, and try to be involved in issues that effect my community, covering the 10 square miles of my house or a bit further out to 10 thousand square miles. I do everything except the most important.
As integrated as I am I still don't hold that little piece of paper to officially recognize me as a citizen of this country, with the rights and privileges that come with it. Yeah, yeah I know! I should've married an American girl long time ago, and after getting my Green Card tell Taghi to come over and get into bed, and wait for my wife to show up so I can act all surprised and say “Oh honey, I thought u knew!!” Well I didn't, consciously. So here I am some 20 years later, a lot older and a bit wiser (I should've married an American girl) and willingly understand my rights as dictated by my status. Right or wrong this is the path I've chosen.
I often think about if and when and how I'll ever go back to Iran. Wether its something that I give serious thought to or entertain as a feeling of nostalgia, it is something to remain in the back of my head regardless of the choices I make. But I am now part of this society and rightfully feel responsible for any system that I am a part of.
My Responsibilities are many and often global: Responsibility to listen and lend a hand or a dry shoulder to a friend when needed, without that the friendship simply will not work. My responsibility to the landlord to pay the rent on time and resfrain from activities that lead to footprints on the ceiling or the bathroom becoming an indoor swimming pool. The responsibility to not only be engaged and informed about the issues of the day and their effect on me, my neighbors and friends, but to be actively involved in the process that has been designed with my direct participation in mind. Just like friendship, without my out stretched hand, the system will simply not work.
All that is yet to come. For now I have to be content with a seat on the sideline and observe democracy in action. I have to wait patiently until one sunny day I'll be able to step up to a ballot box and make my mark and exercise my responsibility as a citizen. To me Doug and Martin Luther King hold the same space in time. They both crystallized the fact that self-determination at whatever level is the most valued gift anyone could have.
It is a conscious decision. As instinctive as it should be, it is a conscious decision to live up to the responsibilities we face as a parent or a friend or a citizen. We proclaim that self-determination is a right of every citizen on this planet, yet it seems our responsibility to such liberties is at the heart of its validation. It is this simple fact that distinguishes freedom as a right or a privilege.
If ever anyone attempted to write the shortest book on workings of democracy, it would require only a single quote: “Use it or lose it!”