Twenty years ago this month, my wife and I were getting ready to celebrate what we believed would be a particularly meaningful Thanksgiving, because it would be the first since our then-only daughter Arianna became a naturalized American citizen, at age 3.
We had traveled to Hefei, China, two years and two months earlier, in 1997, to adopt her when she was 15 months old. The adoption occurred early in an era when thousands of Chinese girls were being given up for adoption by their birth families due to China’s one-child policy, which was established to curb its population. (China ended that policy in late 2015.)
To mark Arianna’s first Thanksgiving as an American, I wrote a letter to her to put her adoption in perspective by discussing the United States’ longstanding tradition of accepting immigrants in search of a better life. The column was published on the eve of Thanksgiving in The Sun Chronicle, in Attleboro, where I worked as a news editor until retiring in 2017.
I chose a Thanksgiving theme for the column because I’ve always felt that Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, one that’s celebrated by virtually all Americans regardless of their ethnic, religious or racial backgrounds.
Two decades ago, the nation’s willingness to accept immigrants was, like today, being debated and tested – and, sadly, 20 years later, immigrants are still being used as a political football. Yet such treatment of immigrants is in keeping with our history as a nation, because people wanting to emigrate here have always faced obstacles.
Just look up, for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the highly charged debate before and during World War II about limiting Eastern European immigrants, including those fleeing the Holocaust, and you’ll realize that today’s treatment of immigrants is nothing new – although the rhetoric out there makes it seem harsher.
Since I wrote the letter to my daughter in November 1999, Arianna, now 23, has taken full advantage of the opportunities afforded her as an American. Over the years, she took numerous dance and swimming classes, graduated from Hebrew school, became a Bat Mitzvah, graduated from high school and college, held down numerous jobs, traveled to Israel with the Birthright program, and then became a teacher. She has, in short, become a responsible American.
Twenty years later, my message to her is as relevant as ever. I hope you agree.
Someday, when you are celebrating Thanksgiving in school and learning the story of the Pilgrims and how they survived their first winter in the New World, I hope you, too, will feel the pride in becoming an immigrant. Tomorrow, when we have dinner with Grandfather Ike, it will mark the third Thanksgiving that you have shared with us, but the first since you became an American citizen in Boston on Sept. 23.
That day, the first day of fall, was sunny and in the 60s. Your favorite part of the day was taking the commuter rail train from Attleboro into South Station before boarding the MBTA’s Red and Green lines to go the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services office in Boston’s Government Center.
Since you’re under 14, there was no public ceremony, per INS procedures – that event was held Oct. 21 in Boston’s Faneuil Hall – but we still took pictures of you afterward with an American flag just so you will have a pictorial record of an important milestone in your life.
We took one picture of you with a photograph of Ellis Island in New York in the background. One day you will learn the significance of that picture: millions of immigrants came through there in the early part of the 20th century. America welcomed them, as America welcomed you on Sept. 27, 1997, when we landed in San Francisco after a long journey from China with all of your “Shen” cousins – the other little girls who lived with you at your home in China.
We were proud of you that day and we were proud again two years later, when you become a citizen.
Why? Because despite all the complaining that grown-ups like to do about this country, the United States is still unequivocally the best place in the world to live.
This country allowed Mommy and Daddy’s parents, their parents and their parents’ parents to worship as they believed and to raise their families with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and hard work – and it continues to allow immigrants from across the world to put down roots and build new lives.
Citizenship carries with it many duties and responsibilities, including voting. Not enough people bother to vote, but perhaps you and your friends will become community-minded citizens and influence your generation to be good citizens.
Being a good citizen is not hard, but it starts with being a good person, following the Ten Commandments – a universal code of good conduct – and helping those who are less fortunate.
That’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving each year: the Native Americans who were in Plymouth in 1620 and 1621 took pity on the Pilgrims and helped them survive the harsh winter. You’ll learn more about Thanksgiving in the future, and one day we will visit Plymouth and its famous rock.
But for now, remember that you have become a citizen of a fine country, one that must continue to accept immigrants because, as this day reminds us all too well, everyone who is not a Native American came to this new world of America to flee persecution and enjoy the unique freedoms that this country offers.
Now, Arianna, you are an American and you, too, can enjoy that freedom.
As you grow up, I pray that you will use it wisely.
LARRY KESSLER (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He and his wife, Lynne, adopted a second child, Alana, from China in 2002.