To Be An American: Notes From An Immigrant's Daughter
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Politics and Activism

To Be An American: Notes From An Immigrant's Daughter

Exploring the notion of patriotism, and where to go from here.

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To Be An American: Notes From An Immigrant's Daughter
Volken Family

I am nothing less than devastated upon witnessing the election of Donald Trump. I feel like I have been sucker-punched by my own country. I fear for so many who I love, so many people who I fight for. In past political pieces I have written, I have neglected to even go into great lengths about that man's rhetoric and policy, as I believed it would be demeaning the intelligence of my reader. It seems now that, as a writer, it is among my duties to divulge the following.

Mom and Dad on Chair Peak, Washington State 1997

From the Alps to the Cascades...

My father was born in a small mountain town in Switzerland. As a young boy, he watched Western movies and fantasized about going to America, land of the free. He wore a fringe jacket, prompting a childhood nickname among his friends, "Jimmy." After finishing his education, specializing in language, young Martin Volken ventured to the United States with one suitcase in tow and $200 in his pocket. He met my mother around this time, and pursued her tirelessly until she reciprocated feelings. They married young, and my dad started what is now considered the original of his businesses: The humble ski shop, located on the Aurora Avenue of Seattle, betwixt a gun shop and a liquor store. He advertised next-day ski tune-ups, guaranteed. My dad often stayed at the store alone, all night tuning skis, as he does not make empty promises. He went on to become a certified mountain guide, renowned in his field, an owner and operator of a mountain guiding outfit, a brilliant public speaker, a published author, someone who is active and integrative with many branches and aspects of the outdoor industry- all the while an involved, supportive, and loving father of two.

North Cascades

Valais, Switzerland

In the family, I might have been the most critical of America, until my sister started involving herself in political discussion in her later teenage years. "A couple of bleeding heart liberals," my dad lovingly teases. I worked hard to learn German and develop a Swiss identity in addition to mine in the States. From an early age, I acknowledged the general hypocrisy of Thanksgiving, I identified with liberalism, and I was an outspoken advocate for the environment and social justice. I proudly wore a John Lennon T-shirt one day to my eighth grade US History class, to which my teacher told me to "get that socialist out of my classroom," so I got out of my desk and walked out the door. I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance when I was 14, taking issue with the phrase "One nation under God." It did not and does not sit well with me. My dad, always with a thick book on American history at his bedside table, was amused by my precociousness, but was always the one to remind me of the good qualities this country possessed. I struggled to find the balance between criticism and patriotism, and my dad reminded me that that is what makes America great, the freedom to critique, and from there implement change for the better of all.

If Donald Trump has his way with the libel laws, our First Amendment rights could be infringed upon, a slippery slope away from democracy, if you ask me. For all the conservative so-called lovers of the constitution, your backing of this man is hypocritical, even if for just that reason.

Because of my issues with America, I have been labeled as a non-patriot, something that seemed like it was supposed to insult me but never did. I have never been able to get fully over the fact that we straight-up stole this country, and then developed a violently anti-immigrant narrative. WTF. I have been told that I have white guilt, to which I respond that I wish to be a white ally, and any negative feeling is rooted in compassion. I cannot tell you how many times I have had an ignorant voice tell me to simply leave the country if I really had such problems with it, especially now. Great logic; I am sure the founding fathers would appreciate the sentiment.

November 8th, 2016

On Election Day, I was able to talk to my sister. She has been studying abroad in the Himalayas, doing a spectacular global health travel, so this was a lucky instance. As she has grown up, I have watched her develop into a highly aware and intellectual person with a fire inside of her to fight for the oppressed. I am immensely proud of her; I think we have become a very good team in all aspects. I have not been able to speak to her much, as she is in very remote areas, doing cool, off-the-grid things. We live together, and are very close, so this has proven difficult.

Donald Trump had not yet secured the election, and I heard my sister cry. I am usually the one who cries; she is quite stoic in comparison. I heard bird sounds I did not recognize, and I heard my little sister cry. She, in the company of enlightened and wise monks, living purely and learning much, was crushed by the obvious lack of compassion in the American public, shocked at how many had already voted for a man we believed to be an unthinkable choice for so many reasons. I held the phone in both hands and cried with her. We promised each other to never stop fighting the good fight, and that we are better side-by-side. .

After it was over, my mother called me. She was crying and apologizing again and again. My mother cares for people and the environment deeply, and radiates a warmth I have been lucky enough to be raised in. I cried with her, for all of the marginalized people who I feared for, who I fight for. I thanked her for instilling in me a priority of compassion, and for showing me how to be loving and strong all at once.

August 2013, Martin Volken becomes an American citizen.

The phone was then handed off to my dad, my beacon of the American dream and the person who kept me from being too cynical about this country. Three years ago, he finally received the long-awaited status as an American citizen. It was a very happy day for us all; I remember how proud my father and the other people from the various nations were, the palpable joy and excitement in the room. I remember thinking, "This is what America is about." Upon hearing the election results, I heard profound sadness in his voice, disappointed wholly by the country he had chosen to move to. I found myself apologizing, at a loss at the presence of my parents’ pain. I thought of the day we held small American flags and watched a room of people become American, and I wept for my father.

"Where to go from here?"

My dad and I in the Salt Lake Desert, a personification of how the aftermath of Election Day felt.

My parents taught me and my sister to have convictions, to think independently, to value ourselves for more than the superficial, and that each person on this earth deserves the same rights, respect, and kindness as the next.

Donald Trump does not reflect what my parents have instilled in us. In fact, my dad hit the nail on the head when he said that he represents everything that is wrong with America. How did we get here?

Moving forward

In the days following the election, we have wiped our tears and have acknowledged that even though moving back to Switzerland has immense appeal (I probably still will), there is much work to be done here. My family had decided to go to North Dakota to protest the construction of the pipeline over Thanksgiving break (the only worthy way to celebrate the backwards holiday, in my opinion), and this has only put a fire under us to continue fighting the good fight; there is much progress to be made.

I have found myself pondering what it means to be a patriot, something I have never really cared to think about. Initially, in my devastation, I denounced my American side and was ready to shed any hint of the country that betrayed me. I wrote a poem, bemoaning the hypocrisy of the country, even utilizing some lines from "America the Beautiful" and entitled it "American Nightmare," a rip on the American dream I felt that we squandered:


I stand by the narrative of my piece, but I feel more inspired now by my own critique. I realized, in my anger, that I care about the well-being of this nation and the citizens of it deeply. I care about the role we play in the world, I care about our wilderness areas an incredible amount. I have felt true fear and sadness for things that largely do not affect me, and for that, I believe that I may be feeling the most American I ever have.

I am the daughter of an immigrant, an advocate for the oppressed, a feminist, an environmentalist, and a lover of intellect. My morals will not allow acceptance of this result, and now, looking upon our country's history, I believe that that standing up for those I protect and for my own convictions is one of the most patriotic things I can do. For one of the first times ever, I have decided that I feel patriotic. So patriotic, in fact, that I will not stand for the degradation of the honest values America has stood for. It is my time to fight for the sanctity of this country. As my sister told me yesterday, I have a job to do.

Freedom and justice for all.


Instagram: @seaglass.poetry


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