The website of the American embassy in London informs me that I can deposit my absentee ballot with them ahead of the upcoming election. However, I am anxious to make it back to the United States in time to vote with everyone else. Despite my enthusiasm for the democratic exercise, I continue to be ambivalent about the idea of having national belonging to any country, because of my family’s diasporic history as well as my own transnational circumstances. So why is it so important for me to be present at or feel the strong need to cast my vote in the impending U.S. election?
When she left Goa, it likely did not cross my grandmother’s mind that she would be laid to rest in another country, one far away from her own native land. My grandmother probably did not think of the children she would have, leave alone the grandchildren, who would journey even farther afield than British East Africa where she settled. Her youngest daughter, my mother, emigrated to the United States from the Arabian Gulf, along with her family, under an African quota. I was to enter the new country of my residence because of Kenya, a place I had never known. In 2008, it finally became untenable for me to continue to hold on to my original nationality – the citizenship of a country I was not born in. That year, I voted in my first U.S. election, bringing to power a man of part-Kenyan origin, America’s first black president.
Just before the historic election, I had the opportunity to visit Kisumu, where the Obama family is from. The 44th U.S. President’s Kenyan origins had, until recently, been the reason why there was so much suspicion about his birthright to that office. I also visited the sites of my family’s own history in Kenya, including my grandmother’s last resting place in Mombasa. Since living in the United States, I have not been to Kuwait where I was born an Indian national due to the citizenship restrictions of my birthplace. My last time there was during a transit stop on our voyage as immigrants to California, which was to become our new domicile. Northern California and North London see most of my time currently, though I routinely visit my parents who now live in Goa. Given my past, to this day, and maybe forever, there is a question that will always confuse me: “Where are you from?” Is there solace in knowing that even the President of the United States has himself been repeatedly asked that question?
While Obama evokes my family’s history in so many ways, when I vote for him again this year, it will be with all the doubts I have about his political record, and with particular misgivings about his handling of foreign affairs. Nor is my vote in promotion of the ideals of multiculturalism as a form of American exceptionalism. Rather, it is a vote for the importance of difference within and outside borders. If in 2008 I voted for how that idea crystallizes in Obama, my vote this time is for the belief that difference inspires even beyond the limits of that which symbolizes it. I vote to hope that things can and will be different.
The online version of this article may be accessed here.