I am … an American. It is fairly recent. Three weeks ago, I was still a “legal alien,” or a “lawful permanent resident,” or a “green card holder,” -- however you want to say it. And now, I am an American citizen. It still feels unreal to me.
On September 26, I drove to the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) office in Mount Laurel, I arrived on time for my appointment, and I sat with other people who had arrived early to their appointment (which meant I was going to wait longer than they would). Most people had a big folder, a briefcase or a plastic bag full of documents. Maybe they knew something I did not. I had just brought what was listed on the appointment letter: my French passport and my green card. What did I miss? Some people came with a lawyer. Most people had family members with them. I felt a little lonely – that’s part of the immigrant experience (and I am sure some people in this room can relate), my entire family lives an ocean away.
There were four rows of chairs facing a big TV, on which the questions we could be asked during the citizenship test appeared, one after the other. The woman sitting behind me answered all the questions as soon as they appeared on the screen, loudly and quickly. It would have been rude to ask her to stop, but it was unnerving to listen to her. She had an accent, like all of us in the room, although I couldn’t place hers. She gave her answers before I had time to formulate mine in my head, and it suddenly, stupidly, felt like a contest: which of us was going to get all of them right? The citizenship test is not a competition, though -- it was not her against me. She was making me more and more anxious, so I had to change seats. I started going over the questions on my phone. What does the judicial branch do? What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for? Who was president during World War 1? I went over the 100 questions twice before my name was called.
It is strange how, when you have been waiting for something to happen for months, when the time finally comes, it suddenly goes so fast that it does not feel like it is really happening.
There were two parts of the interview: administrative stuff, then the dreaded test. The beginning of the interview was all about paperwork, going over personal information, my address, my previous address, the one before that, and the one before that … (I have moved 8 times in the last 15 years). My employer, my children, my marital status, my social security number. I messed up with that one, gave a wrong number – the lady interviewing me said: “That’s not the number I have,” and I immediately panicked, apologized, started again. She said to me: “It is not a test, you are allowed to check it, you don’t have to know it by heart”. But I was determined to show her that I knew it – I have always been an overzealous student. I got it right the second time.
Then came the test. For months, I worked with my son Paul on practicing. He was in charge of asking me the 100 questions in order and out of order in the booklet “Learn about the United States: Quick Civics Lessons for the Naturalization Test”. By the end, he was quite sick of it. “You know them all, stop stressing out.”
“No, but I still confuse the rule of law with the law of the land,” I replied.
“No, you don’t.”, he said.
“And I am never sure if it is Bonnie Watson Coleman, or Bonnie Coleman Watson”
“It does not really matter”.
“Yes it does! And what about if they ask me to recite the list of the US Presidents in the 20th century? I don’t think I know them all in the right order”
Paul’s answer, of course, was: “Moooooom…”
So I was ready for the test. On the edge of my seat. The first question was:
“What is the ocean on the west coast of the United States?”
Really? All these months reviewing American history, wars, founding fathers, presidents, and you are asking me the easiest question in the booklet?
The second question was: “How old do you have to be to vote in a federal election?”
I cannot remember questions 3, 4, or 5, and but I promise you I aced them all. Then question 6 was: “What is the rule of law?” Aha. I know that. I don’t confuse it with the Law of the Land anymore (which is the Constitution, in case you were wondering).
Everyone must follow the law.
Leaders must obey the law.
Government must obey the law.
No one is above the law.
And that was it. My interviewer said: “Congratulations, you passed the test”. And I wanted to say “But wait! You only asked me 6 questions! I want my 10 questions! How about the number of Amendments to the Constitution? (27), the number of Representatives? (435), checks and balances, the 13 original colonies, and the Federalist Papers? Overzealous student, I told you. But no. I needed to answer correctly 6 questions to pass the test, and I did, so we stopped on the rule of law.
I passed the test. But the next moment was the hardest of the whole process, and I had not anticipated it at all. The interviewer looked at me in the eyes, intently, and she said: “You understand that by becoming an American citizen, you renounce all allegiance to your former country, you are now only an American citizen and you are ready to defend the United States always and whatever the circumstances?” That took me totally by surprise, because my children have a dual citizenship, and were never asked to choose between their two countries. I did not realize that I would have to say aloud that I renounced being French. I did not know until that moment that, from the point of view of the United States, when you become an American citizen, you are ONLY an American citizen. My French passport was not going to be taken away from me (although I wondered about that, for a very brief moment), France will continue to consider me one of its own, but as far as the American administration is concerned, I would now be an American citizen, period. It meant I was about to betray my home country, I was about to declare that if ever there was a war between France and the US, I would be on the side of the US, no question about it. In my heart, I felt it was impossible for me to make that decision, right then, right there.
Nevertheless, I had not gone through all this process to waver during the last step, and I did not want her to see any hesitation, so I said with determination (at least I hope it looked like determination): “Of course! I want to be an American citizen!”
At 3:00 pm, it was time for the ceremony. The people who had passed the test were admitted into the ceremony room, rows of chairs facing a screen and a podium. There were 34 of us new citizens, from 21 different countries. We were from France (2 of us), from Jamaica, India, Hungary, Great Britain, Haiti, Mexico, Italy… There was a lady who arrived in the United States from Germany in 1959. We were shown the picture on her original document, the one she filed when she arrived, a very young and smiling version of her. Her children and grandchildren were there. We all had a big smile on our faces, but I think nobody was as happy as the officer who was in charge of the ceremony. He was so happy that he looked like he was going to cry out of joy. I wonder if he can sustain this state of happiness every day, at 3:00 p.m. Maybe the people working at the USCIS take turns being happy with and for the new citizens. He kept repeating that if we were there today, it was because we were “good people.” They checked, he said, all the records: police, FBI; they questioned our employers; talked to our neighbors… There was an awkward silence. No, I am joking he said, of course we did not talk to your neighbors! But we checked everything else. You are good people. The new citizens laughed uneasily. Maybe our neighbors were not asked questions, but our employers? Mmh.
The officer only stopped talking when it was time to show us a few videos. The most touching showed immigrants from the beginning of the 20th century, arriving at Ellis Island. Their faces were both immensely hopeful and definitely scared. I thought about the 4th grader who interviewed me, many years ago, for his immigration project. Do you remember your immigration project in 4th grade? He asked me: “How did you come to the United States?” I was not sure what he meant, so I asked: “What do you mean?” He said: “Did you come by boat?” I said, “No, by plane. I took a plane from Paris to Memphis, Tennessee.” He was clearly disappointed. A plane did not fit his idea of immigration. He continued: “What do you miss the most from your home country?” I said, “My family.” Really, I was the most boring possible immigrant. “Anything else? Like … food?”
I tried to think of something worth noting. “Ah, yes, I miss French bread. You know, fresh baguettes.” He said, “Bread?” He could not believe how unlucky he was to have gotten me as his immigrant.
The ceremony continued. When the officer was done telling us how happy he was for us, it was finally time to take the oath. It is complicated, he said, with odd, ancient words (like “potentate”, as in: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen”), so he was going to read it to us a few words at a time, and we would repeat after him. Oh, and by the way, we were going to be filmed too. Just to keep a record of us all pronouncing the oath. I can promise you that we all pronounce those words loud and clear, our right hand raised and as big a smile as possible on our faces – for the camera, if there was one.
After that, we were all American citizens. The first thing I did, as an American citizen, was to register to vote. There were ladies from the NJ Division of Elections waiting outside of the ceremony room. “Would you like to register to vote?” “Absolutely!” One of them complimented me on my outfit. “Does it come from your country?” It felt such a bizarre question, as if I was dressed in folkloric clothes, that I said no, without thinking. In fact, I realized later that I had indeed bought my skirt and my cardigan in Paris. Does it matter?
So, I have publicly renounced my allegiance to the country where I was born, and that was difficult. I am so, so French. 12 years ago, during my first year at PDS, someone at the lunch table asked me if I was a citizen, and if I was going to become one. No, I said emphatically, I am French! Proud to be French! I don’t want to become an American! I felt the ripples of astonishment around the table. Nobody said anything, but I could tell my colleagues were shocked. I did not understand why. My Frenchness defines me. Why would I trade it for a new American persona?
I guess the 12 years between then and now have slowly changed my mind. I thought long and hard about becoming an American. And when I decided to start the process, I was sure of my choice and I had two main reasons to do so. The first one is my sons. As annoying as they sometimes can be (some of you know them), they are the center of my life, and where they are, I want to be able to be (not that I will follow them everywhere – one is already living in another country, but at least we are on the same continent!). I did not want, ever, to run the risk of having my status of “lawful permanent resident” revoked, my green card renewal refused, or any other administrative hurdle prevent me from being in the United States, where my sons are building their lives. My second reason is about my political involvement (understanding politics in the Greek sense of “the affairs of the city”). I want to be able to vote, to express my opinion, to make my voice count regarding the decisions that matter to me. I come from a very politically involved family and I believe in being engaged in the life of the res publica. For the last 14 years, I have lived here, and it is time I give back, through political participation, to the country that has welcomed me. There were people who told me: “You chose a weird time to become American.” First of all, I did not really choose (when you start the process, you don’t know when it will end). And then, if I were unsure whether I want to be an American citizen because of the troubled times we are undergoing, then I probably would not deserve to be one.
I know I am a lucky immigrant. The process to become a citizen was long, and I met a few obstacles and delays on the way, but ultimately, it was infinitely easier for me, who chose to come to the United States, than it is for so many people who are desperate to make it to this country because of the horror of what they are leaving behind, and the promise of what they are hoping to achieve here. I did not come in a boat, I did not have to go over or under a wall. I am lucky.
There is a small village, in the Pyrénées, up high in the mountains, that I will always call home. No oath will change that. But my life is here now, and so I am an American citizen with an immigrant background, like most Americans. The immigrant background will stick – how can it not? It will not go away, in spite of my new citizenship. I will still hear people say: “You look so French!” (by which they mean: “You have such a strong accent!” or “You are wearing a nice scarf today!”). I will continue to mispronounce many words, and beg for people (except my own sons) to correct me. I will keep on being puzzled by many aspects of American culture (American football, the mythology around guns, peanut butter and jelly for lunch…), and I will continue to declare foie gras one of the most delicious things one can eat in this world. I will persevere in trying to understand all the words in a conversation, and I will not get offended when people cannot figure out what I am trying to say.
In that sense, I guess, I am truly an American, immersed in the here and now of this country, and also bringing with me my heritage, the tales from another land, and, for ever, I am afraid, … my French accent.
About the Author
PreK-12 Foreign Language Department Chair