Sunday, September 11, 2011

American, by choice

(Note: This essay was published in the San Jose Mercury News on November 25, 2001.)

Pride in becoming American intensifies after Sept. 11 attacks

Last year, I became a true American: I was granted U.S. citizenship.

At the ceremony, 1,500 of us gathered in San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium on Nob Hill to declare our loyalty to this country. An Iranian woman stood on my right, a Korean woman on my left. People of all ages, races and economic backgrounds were there, many dressed in red, white and blue. Some wore jeans, others business suits and dresses. We were as diverse in appearance and ethnicity as any group could be, but we stood as one in the crowded auditorium.

I had expected the naturalization ceremony to be just another bureaucratic ordeal to endure, much like renewing my driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But as 1,500 strangers from different lands pledged allegiance to the same flag, tears filled my eyes, pride surged in my heart.

Memories of that day flooded back to me on Sept. 11 Like millions of Americans watching the awful events of that morning unfold on television, I felt shock, sadness and fear. By the time the World Trade Center towers collapsed, I realized I felt something new, something I'd truly never felt before. We soon learned that this country, my country, would be going to war and I felt as patriotic as any native-born American.

It was my younger sister, Linda, who frantically woke me with the news that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers. And, it was my sister, Linda, who had an appointment with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Sept. 11. After we ended our call, I stared in shock at the TV for the rest of the day. My sister, I later learned, headed off to her INS appointment to be fingerprinted, one of the critical steps to becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.

I was upset that my sister kept the appointment on a day people fled most government buildings in droves. “Are you crazy?” I asked. “I’m sure INS would have understood your wanting to reschedule.”

My sister, who is five years younger, knew the truth.

Time is of the essence
“I’ve waited too long for this,” she said. She knew that missing her appointment, even on that terrible and frightening day, could delay her naturalization process several months.

Linda, 26, is the last of us to see American citizenship. A San Francisco social worker, she has nerves of steel. Whether she was overcome with patriotism or she merely wanted her family to stop nagging her – or both – she kept her appointment with the INS.

Her defiance of fear on the day that changed America – and how we think of it – forever was similar to my new feelings of patriotism.

Until my naturalization ceremony, becoming a U.S. citizen had been a mind-numbing process of filling out forms, cramming for the civics exam and waiting for further INS instructions. Until I entered the auditorium, I felt only relief to have reached the final step of naturalization.

But after I turned in my green card to INS officers as part of the ceremony, the weight of the experience overcame me. I was about to begin a new life. When I took my place in the auditorium, I felt exuberant. Although I began the naturalization process alone, I was ending it surrounded by hundreds of strangers, all looking as proud and happy as I.

Looking around the room, I was reminded of the official motto of the United States of America, printed on Page One of my official “Guide to Naturalization” booklet: E Pluribus Unum – From Many, One.

For years, our family never felt an urgency to apply for citizenship. We weren't able to vote, but having a green card seemed enough at the time.

My family’s road to U.S. citizenship began with my parents in the late ‘60s when they emigrated from Taiwan to Canada, where my dad attended graduate school. He eventually received a job offer to teach and do research at an American university, so in the summer of 1976, our family drove across the border to begin our life in the United States. We moved to Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

In the mid-‘90s, my parents worried about growing anti-immigrant sentiment. They decided to formalize their commitment to their adopted country and were sworn in as official Americans in 1997.

Reasons to apply
I decided to apply too, for other reasons. Unlike my Taiwanese-born parents, I was raised in the United States. I was born in Canada but had lived here since age 7. Citizenship status was a mere technicality and I had been content being a U.S. permanent resident or as my green card said, a “resident alien”.

My feelings changed when my parents became citizens. I realized that if my mom, who still speaks with a heavy Taiwanese accent, could make the leap to American citizenship, then surely I could. Both my parents required extra effort to study for the naturalization civics exam, but I already had the benefit of an American education, from grammar school to graduate school. I had been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance since second grade. Surely if anyone in my family were to be called an American, it should be me – and my sister.

I had already missed three presidential elections already and decided that was enough. My parents and I voted as U.S. citizens for the first time last year.

My road to citizenship had taken two years.

The experience is the same for everyone who seeks citizenship. You begin by filling out a detailed application in which you are asked if you have any affiliation with the Nazi Party or various other groups. You must declare if you've ever been a prostitute, a gambler or a “habitual drunkard.”

The questions are meant to determine the moral character of an applicant but seem so pointless, especially now. During the oral exam, an INS inspector quizzes you on a variety of U.S. government and history topics, which sometimes include having you list the 13 original colonies, explaining what the colors of the flag represent and naming local elected representatives.

Does knowing those things make us good citizens?

Pose these questions
In our post-Sept. 11 world, we need to know so much more. Perhaps it's time to change the citizenship application process to reflect modern reality. If I were in charge of developing a new citizenship application, I would ask people to answer: Why do you want to be an American? What does it mean to you?

The answers, I imagine, would be as varied and individual as the applicants themselves. I had wanted to vote. Others wanted a better life for their children. Some sought religious freedom. Or education. Or opportunity. When I first came to the United States, the Pledge of Allegiance was just a jumble of big words. When I recited those words at my oath ceremony, I finally understood and cherished each one.

Just like a marriage oath, the oath of allegiance to this country is something sacred. It means declaring to the world, “I choose you” and being willing to fight to protect the personal and political freedoms we hold dear.

At my oath ceremony, 1,500 people simultaneously renounced allegiance to their countries of birth and swore to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It was an easy promise to make in peacetime, though. The oath bears greater weight and significance today. Will young men still pursue naturalization now, knowing they could be drafted for war?

As part of the Sept. 11 aftermath, there has been talk of monitoring student visas and imposing more stringent background checks. While it is important to protect the country from enemies, we need to be careful not to discourage the people who come here with good intentions. Somehow we must distinguish between those who come to visit and those who come to stay.

Unlike people who are citizens by birth, naturalized Americans choose their allegiance. They choose to put their faith, their hopes and their dreams in their adopted country. And if necessary, they will put their lives on the line.

In a way, those who come forward to seek citizenship now are quiet heroes. They will be the ones who, even in times of danger and backlash, keep their INS appointments.

1 comment:

Cade Culpepper said...

I feel the same way as you did. When people get their citizenship approved, it’s probably the best day of their lives. But with the tragedy that happened on Sept. 11, which left a lot of casualties, it’s hard to celebrate and be happy. Anyway, congratulations and I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

Cade Culpepper