The Day I Became A Freaking American
This shows you how crazy my life has become: before I got sworn in as an American citizen I didn’t regard it as that big a deal. It was like an item on my to-do list: write 1200 words. buy lego set for kid. become citizen. get to yoga. And the fact that I had to drive downtown in order to get sworn in was just annoying.
I’ve been in California for over ten years now, which stuns me to think about. Five years in Palo Alto, through the rise and fall of the dot.com boom — after which, when people found out my husband-at-the-time had founded a dot.com, would look at me sympathetically and say, “So are you guys all right?” and I had to assure them that yes, we were doing okay — and six in Los Angeles.
As a Canadian, it’s not like I had to learn a new language or struggle to adapt to an alien culture. There was, however, a low-level if constant awareness that I have a different frame of reference than the people around me, who came from the same places and went to the same schools and have a certain history in common. My sense of shared history was on the other side of the country on the other side of the border.
Hearing someone in Los Angeles utter the name of my hometown always strikes me as bizarre. It’s as if the person standing next to you at the bank started tapdancing and yodeling in Swahili. It delighted me to an utterly unreasonable degree to discover that model/actress Estella Warren also hails from Peterborough, Ontario, pop. 60,000, and I often wondered if she and I are the only two Los Angeles transplants to have Peterborough in common. (I read an interview in which she praised the natural beauties of our hometown and then, when the interviewer asked, “So would you move back…?” her resulting awkward silence said it all. You get a taste of a certain kind of life, you can’t go back. It’s an old, old, and oft-repeated story.)
The ceremony was held at the Convention Center downtown, a massive sprawling building that had handwritten signs parked on the sidewalk — IMMIGRATION CEREMONY HERE — with a shaky arrow pointing the way forward. Parking lots with signs that said IMMIGRATION PARKING and IMMIGRANTS PARK HERE had attendants competing for our business (“Hey! Pssst!” as I was walking by, “How much you pay for parking over there? Eight dollars? Ten?”). People milled around the front steps. I pushed through the doors and encountered the crowds filling the vast lofty foyer as security guards yelled, “Behind the yellow rope! All friends and relatives behind the yellow rope!” Some of said friends and relatives were waving little American flags. I had stepped into another place, that was America and yet not quite America, some in-between zone where you enter as one nationality and exit as another, and where, as a white girl, I was a sudden minority. Vendors hawked flowers and cheap leather folders for your certificates.
I was early because I was late. I missed the first swearing-in ceremony because, get this, I slept through my alarm . You have to understand this never happens (anymore). Between the alarm, the kids, and my own internal programming, I pop up at 6:30 whether I like it or not (I generally don’t). I tossed on slacks and a black sleeveless blouse, which seemed an appropriate outfit to become a citizen in, not that I’d ever done this before and would know. I didn’t bother with makeup or a hairbrush and flew downtown with rock music blasting. The second ceremony was scheduled at 1 pm, putting hours of time in my hands. Usually my instinct is to find the nearest bookstore, but no way in hell did I plan to leave this building until I became a damn American. I found some hideously overpriced coffee and a couple of hideously overpriced protein bars and settled in with my book and my Blackberry. I ended up putting the book aside to reach out to a few long-distance friends, which turned a long wait into a rewarding morning. I fell into a texting exchange with Dude (“You guys,” a friend observed rather dryly, “text a lot“) which continued up until I sneakily taped a fragment of the American anthem performed live during the ceremony and blackberry-messengered it to him as a voice file.
By the time I thought to get in line, it extended from the doors of the hall past the cafe area, with over two hours to go. I sat cross-legged on the carpet, emailing and texting, feeling like a kid in line for an American Idol audition. All I needed was a sleeping bag. Then the doors opened and we were hoarded through an empty convention hall. Disembodied voices told friends and relatives to leave, and the rest of us to make sure we had our green cards out and forms filled in. I borrowed somebody’s pen. The mood of the crowd was relaxed, friendly. Then we were ushered out of that hall and down and around the corner and along the roped-off area of a vast cement-floored auditorium that could easily hold the 3500 of us swelling the ranks of this country’s official citizen population.
I went up to one of the tables that lined the far wall. “Justine,” said the guy as he glanced across my form, “you’re a little late.” “I am,” I admitted. “No problem,” he said, in the jaded tones of someone who sees this all the time — which made me feel like maybe slightly less of a total freaking idiot — “They’ll be holding your certificate for you over there,” as he pointed to an isolated trio of tables behind some tape and a security guard. I dutifully wandered over to speak to the woman there. She scanned my form and stamped it with a big happy face. This amused me. “I like your happy face,” I said. This got no response from the woman, happy or otherwise.
She told me to drop my green card in the little container. It took a moment to realize that I wasn’t getting it back. I continued to stupidly stand there. “You don’t need it anymore,” the woman said. This had not occurred to me. Anyone who goes through the years of hassle and uncertainty it takes to get a green card knows that it’s not just a card, it’s a freaking piece of your freaking soul. I felt naked — and I don’t care if that’s a cliche — walking away without it.
I followed the yellow rope down the length of auditorium and up into the aisles of the rows on rows on rows on ROWS of chairs. I accepted my little American flag. I sat in my chair and waited. And waited. And waited. The seats filled with all us baby citizens, and more time passed, and the crowd finally began to get restless. On the stage upfront, a man would intermittently lean into the mike over the podium and say, “New citizens!..New citizens!…Please stay in your seats! When the judge arrives we will have to start immediately, and if you don’t get sworn in you will not be a citizen! I repeat, you will not be a citizen! And you’ll have to come back and do this again !”
I sat there alone with my thoughts. I didn’t have any friends or relatives waiting for me down on the ground floor, but the back-and-forth texting with Dude made me feel like I was sharing the experience with him. I liked having him there.
Finally the judge appeared. There were some ritual words, and we stood and put our hands in the air and pledged allegiance to our new country. My throat got thick, and pressure gathered behind my eyes. I kept thinking: I’m home now. This is my freaking home.
It’s true. I can vote in the next election. I can commit a federal crime and I won’t be deported (I do not plan on doing this). There was a feeling of coming in from the sidelines, where I’ve been living for so long, on so many different levels, that I had come to take them as a given, as if my innate and permanent place was in this ex-pat limbo where you’re not one thing or the other. But now I could feel the cement floor beneath my sandals, watch the two videos flickering on the projection screen welcoming us to the country — Obama giving a speech, followed by a cheesy yet (at least in this context) oddly moving video to the song “Proud To Be An American” — and then it was over. Out of the auditorium and down the escalators where representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties were waiting to nab us. I had already registered as a Democrat, so all I had to do was walk out of the doors into the blinding day and find my car and drive home.
Three hours before the ceremony.
Bring it on. I’ve got my flag.
Portrait of the new citizen.