Helen Raleigh: As an immigrant, I celebrate America this July 4th and goodness of the American people

The majority of Americans I’ve met over the years are caring, generous and kind people.

Patriotism seems to be out of fashion for many Americans this Fourth of July. From toppling statues to banning the national anthem, it’s hard to miss all the denunciations of America's founders, founding principles, history and even America itself.

We are told this is absolutely necessary because our nation has been irredeemably racist since its birth and that this systemic racism has suppressed the wellbeing of minorities for more than two centuries.

As an immigrant, I see America differently. I was born and raised in China. I lived through strict food rationing and witnessed my parents' having little say in their lives. They didn't get to choose where to live and for whom they wanted to work because the communist government made all the decisions for them.

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I was determined to have the freedom to live the life I wanted.

As a result, I came to the U.S. in 1996 to pursue a master’s degree at the State University of New York, College of Oneonta, with less than $100 in my pocket. I had no family members in the U.S. and very few American friends back then. I also spoke limited English with an accent.

To help pay for school, I took on three part-time jobs. But hardship never bothered me. I was so thrilled that I got to be in charge of my own destiny.

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From that humble beginning, I obtained two graduate degrees, worked for several Fortune 500 companies, and now I am a business owner, author and regular contributor to a number of national media outlets. I get to freely express my thoughts every day in a way that is impossible for many people around the world.

This transformation of my own life is not a unique story. Millions of immigrants who came before me have done the same and I am confident that millions more will accomplish even more in this country.

The United States is the only nation in the world that was created on a set of principles, presented as self-evident truths. These are spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution.

The universal appeal of these founding principles means that anyone – from anywhere in the world – who pledges to these principles can become an American. In President Abraham Lincoln's words, whoever does this has "a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration."

When I made my choice to become a U.S. citizen I was joined by 60 new immigrants who represented 55 countries of origin at the citizenship ceremony. There were many shades of skin colors and many languages were spoken.

However, there was one thing we all had in common: overwhelming joy. Our journeys are one of the most powerful testaments that America is not a nation infested by systematic racism.

Saying America is not systemically racist doesn't mean there is no such thing as race-based discrimination in the United States. I'm no stranger to this – I’ve been on the receiving end of it.

I was once told that my English wasn't good so I wasn't eligible for the next promotion at work. A few people thought I was intellectually challenged because of my accent. Some people were just shocked that I spoke English at all.

Once, even though I was the first one at the counter, the salesperson chose to serve someone standing next to me first.

Another time when I returned from an overseas trip a young Customs agent asked me: "How long have you had the privilege of living in my country?" even though all paperwork showed that the United States is my country too.

When some readers didn't like something I wrote, they would tell me to go back to where I came from.

Yet, despite these experiences, I am still proud to say that I am an American by choice and I love this country. That’s because the ugly encounters I describe above are only a tiny portion of my overall experience. Those incidents represent individual fallibility rather than systemic racism.

The majority of Americans I’ve met over the years – regardless of race and social and economic background – are caring, generous and kind people.

Not long after I came to the U.S., one of my wisdom teeth caused me insufferable pain. Since I was a poor student who couldn't afford dental insurance, a lady from the church took me to see her dentist and she took care of all the expenses.

After college, I started my first job in a department where everyone else was a white man. All the guys treated me with nothing but respect. They patiently taught me how to do my job, tolerated many of my mistakes, introduced me to American TV sitcoms such as "Friends," and sent me an online slang dictionary so I would become familiar with terms Americans often use.

When I bought my first house, my co-workers came to help me move and even painted the kitchen.

I married into an Irish-American family. My father-in-law is a retired Marine who fought in the Vietnam War, where he was seriously injured. Before I met him for the first time, I was fully prepared that he wouldn't like me because of his war experience.

Yet both my husband’s parents have embraced me like their own daughter from Day One. They even took Chinese language lessons and learned how to use chopsticks – all part of their efforts to make me feel welcomed.

When I was seriously ill, neighbors quietly mowed our lawn and organized a meal train for three months. We never had so many apple pies in our lives!

When a severe windstorm split a tree open in the front yard, the same neighbors showed up to clean the debris as soon as the wind died down. Within a few hours, our yard was so clean that it looked as if nothing had happened.

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When I reflect on my own American experiences, this caring, generous and kind America is what I appreciate most. Our country does have many problems such as crumbling public schools, inner city poverty, drug abuse, overcrowded prisons and racial disparities in health care outcomes.

For example, African-American, Native American and Alaska Native women die of pregnancy-related causes at a rate about three times higher than those of white women, in spite of advances in medicine and expanded access to health care.

But toppling statues and condemning America's founders and founding principles will not make these problems go away. Solving these serious problems requires somber and honest discussions, meaningful policy changes and joint efforts from all Americans.

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On our nation's 244th birthday, it's important to remember that America’s founding principles are not empty promises but a guiding North Star. We should be proud of the progress we have achieved, learn from the mistakes we made along the way, and be keenly aware that there is still more that needs to be done.

Whether you were born in the U.S.A. or you are an immigrant like me, being an American is always a choice. On this Independence Day, let's once again choose to do as the signers of the Declaration of Independence did and "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" to make our nation a better place for all Americans.

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