I have been living outside of the United States for the better part of five years. So imagine my surprise when I returned in September, to find that we are now making Americans prove that you are a "real American." It is no longer enough to just have a valid passport and driver's license, or even a birth certificate with your wrinkly footprints on it. Now you have to pass the test. What's the test? Well, I don't know exactly because the people who administer and grade it refuse to show it to me. They read or hear my name, Tetsuhiko Endo, look at me from head to toe, then promptly give me a low C with a slight furrowing of the eyebrows and pursing of the lips, pending further review.
The moderators are usually people with flag waving, apple-pie sorts of names like Clinton, McCain, Kurtz, O'Reilly, Jackson, Kelly, Lieberman, Hannity and Limbaugh—the kind of people who tend to be political power brokers and influence peddlers. There are no Wongs on the testing board; no Guptas, no Silangs, no Nakamuras or Alis either. There are no Achebes or Akwanyas; no Chans, Chews, Chows or Patels. Certainly no Husseins and very few Castros and Izqierdos. And no Obamas…until recently. That's not to say the moderators are a closed club. About 100 years ago, the McCains, O'Reillys and Hannitys used to fail the "real American" test, sight unseen. Now look how far they have come.
So I guess I should be glad that new suspect Americans get a little more leeway than they used to. Still, it would be nice to at least see the test. I bet I would score well if they gave me a chance. How couldn't I? I was born here, educated here, played in the cornfields of southern Ohio and shot bottle rockets out of old Natural Light cans on Independence Day. I like my autumns crisp, my markets free and my governments democratic. I am a child of Middle America and something of a Scantron virtuoso to boot.
Come to think of it, I'm not sure why I have to take the test at all. But the recent debate set off by the McCain campaign's designation of some parts of the country as the "real America" has made the test more important than ever to some.
It's not that I'm bitter. I realize that just because I have to pass the test, it doesn't mean people don't like me or vice versa. And that leads me to Bush. That is an American name for you, like Washington, or Blennerhassett. No wonder he got to be one of the lead moderators when it comes to testing "real Americans." With a name like that, you could do just about anything short of starting a war without failing the test. If you don't have such a name, you might want to consider changing it to something more common like Freeman or Baker. Homogeneity, it seems, is very American.
It's not only about your name, though; that's just the first half of the test. The second, from what I can gather, is a practical section entitled "Looking American." Apparently, that means either being white or black—though being too black is cause for suspicion. If you have to be something in between, at least be able to say that someone in your family passed through immigration at Ellis Island. Anyone whose family arrived within the last 75 years automatically loses 10 all-American points.
If you have not scored well on the first two sections—perhaps you have test anxiety—you can always make up for it with the bonus section. There are two parts, so pay attention. First, if you live in a vaguely Native-American-sounding town with a high per-capita ratio of American flags (think Chillicothe or Wasilla), be sure to write that beside your name—this is the real America. However, if you live on an actual Native-American reservation, it's best not to mention this, as it is grounds for immediate failure. Now here's the second part. If your address falls outside of the real America, don't despair, you can boost your score by accusing another citizen of being a not-real American, un-American or even better, anti-American. This is the great American past time and the ultimate ace in the hole. You can use it on anyone as long as they aren't named Washington, Bush or Blennerhassett. It will especially help your score if the person you accuse has a funny name and darker skin than you, that way there is less doubt about the veracity of your claim.
Your overall grade comes from combining your scores from the various sections in order to get a total. Ideally, you want to be a white person with an Anglo last name—Jimmy Carter, for instance. That's an A++ and automatic entrance into the moderator's club. You score lower as a white person with a questionable last name like Dukakis or Einstein but your practical section usually makes up for it.
Jesse Jackson—there's another high-scoring American. Slight point deduction for having a first name that could also be used for a girl, but nothing he can't overcome. Michael Jackson scores favorably, too, with bonus points for trying to look more Caucasian. Eastern Europeans are suspicious, and Asian people score unanimously low with their un-patriotically slanted eyes and hard to pronounce names. They have made a surge in recent years, though, by giving themselves American first names like Bruce and Johnny and Ken. Despite this, few have made it off the "suspicious" list, with the notable exception of television news personality Michelle Malkin, who regularly picks up bonus points for accusing scores of others of practicing anti-Americanism.
As for everyone else, take it from me: You are what the moderators call a "Fringe American," which means that you are just living here—precariously, at that. If you speak with an accent, you are just living here. If your parents are from another country, you are just living here. If you are from the Middle East or India, or even look like you are, you are just living here. And watch your step, bub, we're keepin' an eye on you.
Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave, where everyone gets a fair shake and all men are created equal. Don't bother opening your exam books, your grades have already been decided and will be branded on your cheeks while you sing the national anthem.
Tetsuhiko Endo is a writer embedded in the political battle-ground of Columbus, Ohio.