We’re in North Carolina on a family trip. Not exactly the biggest hick-state, but as close as I’ve ever gotten to it. The menu at the diner advertises cheap beer and crab cakes, burgers and fries. The waiter, detecting our tourist vibe, asks us where we are from. “The city,” I replied nonchalantly. Immediately, I recognized the elitism of the response, the pretentious snob inside of me oozing out. “New York City, I mean,” I embarrassingly hurried to correct my mistake.
Yet, part of me feels no shame at my simple mishap. After all, New York is The City, right? Too great to put an “a” before, and too well known to need to say “New York”. To me, it’s a home, but to that waiter in the diner, it symbolizes a world on its own, a fantasy of allure and glamour, of possibility. Even to those who live every day surrounded by the bright lights in the city that never sleeps, a certain mystique of personality lingers in the air.
Being a true New Yorker, born and raised, I never saw myself as part of America. Yes, I shared a bond of culture and sophistication with the yuppies Downtown and the students in the East Village, maybe even with the hipsters in Brooklyn, but with Americans? Americans sounded dumb, I was surrounded by eloquence. Americans had rifles, I had Broadway. Americans went to war, I would have a career. I would be important.
In a way, the letter gave me an opportunity to be important. It mentioned “honor” and “duty”, alongside the foreboding idea of the “draft”. It was a personal invitation to join the ranks of martyrs and heroes. My future became these words on the page. I saw images of myself in my idealized New York office being replaced with me with a gun. Ideas of intellect crossed out by the concept of bravery. Camaraderie negated competition. As I read over the letter, with its large font and intimidating lettering, I could see myself next to the President, winning a medal for my courageous performance in the war. The framed picture of me in my uniform and Mr. President will be hanging above the living room couch.
Only excitement and anticipation seemed to fill my mind as I envisioned the next few years. However, the realist inside of me was trying to push fear and anxiety into my brain. The realist forced me to contort my face into one of hate, trying to mimic the anger that it knows I should feel. The realist was hammering its ideas into me, digging his pick axe into the center of my brain. Soon though, the realist evaporated, leaving my muddled brain lost and confused. Scared, I arose from the chaos only to find myself running and firing with my automatic weapon on the cracked soil of Afghanistan, the hot sun of a different world gleaming down on my camouflage uniform.
I awoke from my trance greeted by the proximity of my sentence. In two weeks, I was to arrive at the draft office for a physical. But as a New Yorker, it was my duty to my city to fight against the obligation. Right? But what is a New Yorker, truly, if not an American? And what is more American than serving in the army?
As I pondered these questions, my mind wandered back to my trip to North Carolina. After we ate at the diner, my family and I visited the museum of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Though I’m a third generation immigrant, reading about the settlers who created this nation was a prideful experience. Though over 400 years ago, they experienced hardships and toils that are unsurpassed even by many today. The war in Afghanistan started to seem purposeful, even if not logical, since the need to fight for those who struggled started to glare at me from the faces of the aged museum portraits.
I am a New Yorker at heart, always have and always will be, and yet I felt a deep connection to the colonists, the heart of early America. Was it possible that I could be both? Is a New York American an oxymoron? After skimming through my memories as a bird scans a lake, I realized that the answer was very simply, no. The similarities between me and the quintessential American were undeniable. We both eat burgers and watch Sunday Football. The stereotype and I sing the same anthem during baseball games, and we both watch Glee. We both have friends and family, and our names are both on the draft list.
As I realized that the decision was not about the debate between my New York side and my American side, since they were identical, the choice to show up at the office became immensely easier. I knew that I would show up gleaming red white and blue, presenting both to the world, and to myself, a new patriotic side.
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School