Like many who watched President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, I wasn’t made in America, but I’m a typical American: I’m from somewhere else.
In my case, I was conceived in Denmark, grew up on the wild, rugged Cornish coast of England and was sent to school in the Orkney Islands, crossing the sea in a light plane. Next stop, France, where we children wore clogs to school, then eight years among the bears in the everlasting snows near Shimla, India, followed by a marriage in Spain during the frightening days of martial law under General Franco. My home is now a medium-sized riverside town in the United States. I’ve been an American for the last 30 years.
America is a melting pot—I can describe the people of this country by talking about the people of Uganda, Uruguay or Utah. Some Americans may move people to tears of joy while others provoke them to react with disgust, but Americans are no better or worse than anyone else. We are all of us preoccupied with our own worries about relationships and children, health and mortality. Some are bursting with love, while others are scarred and filled with hate. Most are a bundle of mixed emotions.
But there are some universal values that transcend all differences and create a bond between people—and animals—such as understanding, helping and sacrifice. Once when I was in India, I saw a homeless woman on a bridge remove a handful of boiled rice from the hem of her skirt, place it on a flat leaf and push it a few inches away from her. A mother street dog appeared, wagging her tail very softly, humbly, her head down in a submissive pose. The woman let the mother dog eat, squatting beside her and guarding her so that she could feel safe while she took her meal.
These values were also present when a plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., one winter, its wing flaps too frozen to move. People of all nationalities, for it was Washington after all, were caught in their cars on that bridge. News footage showed many people fleeing on foot as best they could. Others leaned over the bridge rail, frantically trying to determine whether there was anything that they could do, anything at all, even shouting encouragement over the wind and the snow to the passengers trying to stay alive in the frigid water below.
When tales were told afterward, it was no surprise that, finding themselves in a cabin filling up with ice water, some people had trampled and shoved aside other passengers in their panic to stay alive. But one man, an American, remained in the river, his body half in, half out of the plane, using his strength to hoist other, less able passengers out of the wreckage. He helped for as long as he could before his fingers and feet froze and he died. I am sure that he did not ask or care where anyone was from.
America is called the “melting pot” because it is home to people of all races, creeds, colors and religions. Yet America is not perfect, and among our citizens, we have the best and the worst and the middling. Within a few generations, the young often forget or even disavow their grandparents’ or earlier ancestors’ migrations, but no one can alter the fact that all of us, even those of us called Native Americans, are from somewhere else. And all of us are, in the ways that truly count, simply residents of this planet with the potential to be compassionate citizens.
Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org. Her latest book is One Can Make a Difference .