After four years in America I’m ready to take an oath
Constant comparisons and homesickness become part of your life as an emigrant
Mark Cunningham with his wife and three children in Tom's River, New Jersey.
Initially it’s putting the day and date the wrong way around in the first few weeks of being here. Four years later it’s hearing yourself telling people yes, you can speak “Gaelic”. You catch yourself thinking the word “honour” looks strange spelled that way, while reading an Irish Times article at 6am on a Saturday morning.
Internal calculations and comparisons and occasional bouts of homesickness become part of your life. But emigrating is about the new. It’s about holding the things that made you close and discovering the footholds that move you forward.
America is full of footholds. It is intense and it never stops. It works so hard. Its brightest and best still know it is the best idea the world ever had. Its hardest and dullest think it’s all just for them. Almost 400 years ago Europeans started to imagine what America might be and Americans have been doing it ever since.
With every enlightenment-rooted pledge of allegiance a teacher leads, every entrepreneur who knows she can do it and has consistently been told she can too, every cheap meal eaten in a car, every owner of a business that just kept growing, every dedicated military member who protects the vast majority of world trade, every artist who knows that America is big enough and broad enough for them to find their place, the dream moves on.
After coming dozens of times as a visitor, it surprised me how the immigration officials at Newark were so delighted to see an actual Irishman coming, to make a home with his family. I felt I was in the last trickle of a seemingly endless river, now dammed by 9/11’s fear and border-tightening. Even white, blue-eyed, fair-haired Irishmen without proper papers get pulled out of their beds in Boston nowadays.
But the fear on Fox News does not stop Americans making room for you to find your corner. They welcome you into their homes with hospitality and warmth and curiosity. Communities can be warm or they can be cold, like home or anywhere else. All Americans really want to know is how the individual in front of them is going to enjoy their inalienable right to have a chance at a better life.
What are you going to do in your pursuit of happiness? Take your shot at bat and make sure you swing for the fences. God provided you with America, buddy, the rest it up to you.
AA Gill pointed out that every American holds the narrative of how they got to be here close. He also joked it is the only country in the world where if you stick a microphone in front of someone and put them on camera, they are guaranteed to talk. I knew I was turning somewhat native when this happened to me two years ago, while walking out of a rest-stop on the NJ Parkway with plenty to say about this weekend’s potential traffic delays. I can’t imagine being so loquacious if approached by a camera crew on a damp November morning at the Enfield Applegreen on the M4.
Knowing their narrative is Americans’ version of conversations about the weather and this makes them different. Somewhere on or just below the surface they carry an awareness of how fortunate they are to be striving for their version of the most tantalising and vital of all American values: success. Which kind is yours?, because it’s all here and no one will judge you for trying to find it. They want you to find it.
This DNA now exists in an America where companies stopped giving their workers a raise in real income from 1998 to 2015. Generations of traction towards a better life for all started to lose its footing. Despite the social fallout it is still accepted that no one is going to catch you if you fall. Food stamps are for scroungers. Free college is a socialist dream so strap on the debt and be a good little American. Slavery happened hundreds of years ago so what’s that got to do with me? Big messy problems in big loud country.
Right now, the brightest and best Americans I know are straining for some light
And healthcare. Healthcare tells you everything you need to know about the darker side of American values. It reflects the size of the problem America faces as it ignores the plight and pressure placed upon so many of its citizens by a exhaustingly complex system in the name of profit.
Living here allows you to see from your children’s school district to the boy scouts, your church, your local government, the presidency and even your health, everything in America is run like a business. Much of it just is a business. This means the job at hand gets done like nowhere else, but someone’s always winning and the shadows can be deep.
Right now, the brightest and best Americans I know are straining for some light. They know it’s not about red or blue but respect and decency and how collaboration is most necessary when the endeavour is great.
After four years on a green card made possible by my wife, this week I will take an oath and be handed a passport. I know they’ll let me find a way to dream a little too.
Originally from Co Offaly, Mark Cunningham works in car sales in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife Tara and children Eoin, Charlie and Emilia.