Yesterday I became an American citizen. Holding the hand of a lovely lady from Algeria (who barely spoke English), and croaking along to ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ with my hand on my breast ( who knew how hard that is to sing?) I surprised myself and truly abandoned my British heritage by blubbling like a baby. It was unbelievably emotional. Unexpectedly so.
I’m not sure if I was crying with joy or relief to finally finally be done with the process. Its a toss up.
Basically you spend 5-15 years standing in queues (or ‘lines’), getting documents stamped, reviewed, resubmitted, trying to convince administrators that yes, my hair has changed a lot in 15 years, providing x rays of your chest, verifying that you don’t have TB, HIV or Syphilis (yes, no STDs in America kids!) and hoping that the FBI doesn’t consider your numerous speeding tickets as any indication of your moral fiber.
When you finally, finally arrive at the immigration office, you sit in front of your file (mine is about 14 inches thick), and basically try not to say anything too stupid.
I’d just ended a frustrating call with my mother before my interview, and when asked by the agent ‘how is your day going?’, I casually mentioned that I wanted to kill my mother.
His eyebrows hit his hairline and I backtracked at high speed.
‘No.. not actually want to kill her… just .. well you know, drives you nuts etc etc.. not kill’
He suggested that I take a seat and stop talking.
We sat face to face as he sat and read every single sheet in my file. At least 400-500 pages. The sweat beading on my back was starting to drip down to my pants and the silence was so extended that I seriously thought I was about to be escorted out the back and shot.
He eventually looked up and asked me to start my Civics test. I giggled with relief and then swallowed my excitement with a burp.
Here’s the weird thing. Even though there are 100 questions and they’re not too tricky, you just know that they’re going to ask you the ones you don’t know. So despite me knowing the years in which the constitution was signed and who signed it, he decided that the theme of the day was civil rights.
Cool. I’m all over that, I confidentially sat up with a big grin of relief.
And got the first question wrong.
Because when someone asks you the name of the movement that address inequalities between people the only word I could think of was segregation. Never mind that I had just heard the word ‘civil rights movement’ from his lips.. nope.. I was stuck on the word segregation. Which I KNOW is the opposite of civil rights.. but could I remember the words civil rights??? Not a hope in hell.
I even starting reciting Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech thinking that it would jar something but I still couldn’t remember the name of the movement.. and now I’m impersonating MLK, complete with Southern twang and deep baritone. The agent clearly thought I was a lunatic and starting flicking back through my file to check that I hadn’t been recently detained at a medical institution.
He gently suggested that we move on.
Thankfully the other questions were less ‘tricky’ and I was informed that I passed. The writing and oral parts of the test flew by (to be honest as a ‘communication’ pro, you’d worry otherwise), and suddenly he’s telling me that I’m being sworn in as a citizen in 60 minutes.
I swear, I now know what it must feel like to be proposed to, to receive an Oscar and be nominated as President all in the same day… I was verklempt. Floored. The tears started right there and then… I couldn’t actually believe that it was done. I was in.
An hour later I sat with 52 other citizen-to-be’s, clutching our American flags and reciting the Oath of Allegiance in unison. 28 countries were represented and not a single unlined face amongst us – our unifying identity seemed to be one of relief and tiredness. As the montage of old photos from Ellis Island flashed on the project screen, one by one, people started to weep. The lady standing next to me took hold of my hand and squeezed it as the tears ran down my face. The local area IN guy intoned that;
‘Your bank account, your social status, your parents, your race, your sex, your age, your station in life in your former country no longer matter. You are an American. Your future is yours to define’.