On August 10, 1980, I was admitted to the United States of America on a J-1 visa.
I’d received my passport less than two weeks before and was still nervous about the whole adventure. I was twenty-seven, French, an exchange student, the recipient of a graduate grant from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. For a full year, I’d take English Literature classes and teach French as a second language.
I’d filled out my share of paperwork in France to get right where I was standing: at JFK airport in New York City. So I couldn’t imagine having yet one more form to turn in at customs, especially one I’d never encountered before on my international travels, one I didn’t quite understand.
NAME: I knew my name was Christine Moughamian, as stated on my passport.
RACE: I couldn’t find White anywhere. “Caucasian,” a uniformed Black matron said to me. In a glance, she sized up my pale face, my hazel-green eyes, my light brown hair, long, spaghetti-straight.
She tapped her pen on the word, insisted “You’re Caucasian.”
Caucasian? I’d never heard the word before. Caucasian, as in the Caucasus Mountains, back in… Armenia? I flashed on my Armenian relatives, their curly black hair, brown eyes, dark complexion, all physical traits that marginalized them in France as not French, not white. If their skin looked like golden brioche, mine, inherited from my snow white French mother, was like the Alps Mont Blanc.
But Alpine was not an option.
I checked Caucasian and moved on to the next question: RELIGION.
RELIGION? As in “which church you go to?” In my family, we only went to church for weddings, funerals and my godchild’s christening. My father was disgusted with what he called “the hypocrisy of the golden-clad church.” My mother was a rational atheist who believed that when we die, “we just die, we’re just flesh and bones.” France was largely Catholic. And me, I believed in sunlight and love and nature spirits.
But that was not a “religion,” per se.
People were getting impatient in the line behind me. I hadn’t gone to church in years, but I was baptized and did know the Hail Mary. I bit my lip, wrote in small letters “catholic.” I was not smuggling in illegal drugs, dangerous weapons or too many bottles of French wine. Yet, I could feel my hands getting clammy.
Had I just committed a deadly sin?
First time in America, first time in New York City, first time in line at customs to “declare” my religion.
That was over thirty years ago.
Since then, I’ve crossed the Atlantic many times, both ways. I’ve re-entered the US in Newark, Washington, Philadelphia, Denver, Charlotte, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Atlanta… The questionnaire hasn’t changed much throughout the years, but I have.
Over time, I’ve learned that if sunlight and love and nature spirits are not a religion, they are nonetheless the very fabric of my spirituality. Now I am a permanent resident in the US, but if I returned to that line at US customs, I’d fill in my name, and leave the other two lines – RACE and RELIGION – blank.
And you, how would you answer these questions?