Longing to be: “Hamilton” and the Legacy of an Immigrant

On July 17th, 2010, a plane from Taipei landed in LAX. I was one of four immigrants among the passengers who were waiting to make their very first steps on the (cemented) soil of America. I felt confusion and emptiness. There was a lingering question, “What am I going to be?”

Maybe that’s the same question that Alexander Hamilton asked himself when he first arrived on a ship to New York City? The legacy he received from his parents was a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore, and a Scotsman.” In New York City, Hamilton was given the chance to build a new life. Underneath that determination was something else that penetrated deeply into his identity as an immigrant: a longing to be accepted for who he was.

Coming up from the bottom

What makes immigrants different from native-born people? In my experience, I think it’s about the relationships I had back home in Vietnam. My identity was tied up in my friends and family I had to leave behind.  On the day I left Vietnam, I felt like I lost a part of who I was. What could I do? I could try to preserve my identity by rejecting anything new and staying close to those who would give me a sense of security. Or, I could take the risk of losing my old identity to begin a new one. For Hamilton, with his mediocre background, there was nothing to lose. “In New York, you can be a new man.” 

Throwing away the shot

After I arrived in America, everything was new and unfamiliar. People looked at me like an alien. I tried to communicate with others but we hardly understood each other because of the differences in language, culture, and ways of thinking. They mentioned TV shows, actors, basketball players, etc. and I had no idea who or what they were talking about.  Usually, I simply smiled and pretended that I knew so they didn’t feel awkward or offended. There was a wall preventing me from connecting with others, a wall that I wanted to break by any means. I wanted to prove myself, be recognized, and accepted by others. 

“I am not throwing away my shot!” also could mean “I am not wasting my life!” Ironically, to build his legacy, Hamilton continually threw himself into uncharted water. He was on the front line fighting the British, and he eventually became the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. He threw himself onto the (political) front line in fighting the oppositional ideology from the South. Indeed, by placing himself in dangerous confrontations and coming out victorious, he built a legacy for himself. But at what price?

Never Satisfied

Some people are fortunate to be born with a legacy of their family. Yet, as an immigrant, I had to begin from scratch. Often, when I first meet somebody and start a conversation, one of the questions that pops up is, “where are you from?” For some people, it’s a simple question to get to know the other better. But for an immigrant, it can feel like an act of suppression for a few reasons. First, it creates a wall within my mind, I feel marked as an outsider. Second, it creates a sense of embarrassment because of my background. I feel a sense of shame in having to leave my homeland. Third, it stirs up a desire to be accepted and recognized. 

Angelica asked Hamilton about his family (his legacy), and rather than giving a straight answer, he implied that he would create a legacy for himself. “I have never been satisfied,” Hamilton told Angelica. Hamilton wants to run away from his past, his ”legacy” as an “orphan,” “son of a whore,” and “penniless man.” As a result, he used his talents and wits to climb the social ladder. And he was never satisfied. This came at a price. It was not his affair that cost him his reputation, hurt those who love him, destroyed his career as a politician, and lastly, contributed to his son’s death. The price he had to pay was never being satisfied.

What is a legacy?

In 2016, I entered the Jesuit Novitiate of the Three Companions in Culver City, CA.  That decision committed me to taking on a new identity. I desired to be accepted and recognized by the “American people” I was serving as a Jesuit. Many times, I tried and failed to impress others, to prove myself, to understand them, and to be understood despite my limitations in language and cultural experience. I don’t feel I’ve had quite as much success as Hamilton, yet I’ve realized something Hamilton could not until late in life. It happened when a brother novice saw me struggling with my English. As I was trying to explain myself, he stopped me and said, “It’s okay. You don’t have to try. We love you for who you are.” That moment changed my life forever.

“What is a legacy?” Hamilton asked himself. One can see Hamilton’s legacies in the freedom we enjoy in the United States. Or in the great banking system that brought prosperity to a newfound country. Or in the fact that he is our “$10 Founding Father.” As for me, I see his greatest legacy in the people who loved him in midst of both success and failure. 

The hardest part of immigrating to the United States was leaving the ones I love. As it turns out, new loving relationships are the greatest gift I’ve received in my new home. And Hamilton reminded me that love is the greatest legacy any person can leave behind.

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