Thursday, July 2, 2009

What America means to me

I'm going to be away from my computer, celebrating my family's presence around me as well as July 4th. But I thought I'd repost this article that I wrote on gather just after becoming a US citizen. Wishing all my American friends a happy Independence Day!

What America means to me.

When I was small, America meant cartoons on TV. Later it meant people with guns and a murdered president. I entered my teens and America meant war, demonstrations, drugs and flowers. In my cynical twenties it meant too much money, too much food, too much luxury, too loud voices and too little tact. But it also meant pride, as England once had pride, and Rome before it.

Then America became my land of opportunity; the freedom to forge a new path without history making choice inescapable. It came to be the place where we planted our hopes and our futures, as we moved our family here.

And yet, each time we left the country, we’d return to the same unwelcoming questioners guarding the barrier: “Why are you here? What do you want? Where will you stay? What will you do? When will you leave?” We were strangers; we weren’t welcome here, and so we felt unwelcome everywhere. But then we got the magic cards and became tolerated, maybe friends. We’d been living here five years by then, and we waited another five before we could try to become citizens. Our children grew up American; they just didn’t have the paperwork to prove it…

And then…

The courtroom, wood-paneled, smelling of books and dust, hid at the end of a gray-painted corridor. There were flags behind a raised platform, visitors’ seating round the edges, and chairs with big white envelopes laid out for the participants in the middle. A video was playing with pictures of immigrants from all around the world, and patriotic music.

The judge arrived, robed and formal, and sat behind his desk. Someone presented us to him, declared we had all been examined, and recommended us for citizenship. We stood together, right hands raised, reciting an oath that was printed on cards in front of us. It felt strange to speak those words, but stranger still to realize I’d been asked to speak them; to realize we didn’t just choose to become citizens, but this country chose to accept us. We had no secrets – they had learned everything – and just as we are, we were finally welcome.

We recited the pledge of allegiance; we stood silent no more; America has promised to support us now, as we must promise our support in turn. Then we sat to hear the judge.

So this is what America means to me now. It means a judge telling me never to forget where I came from; never to deny the culture that formed me; never to assume I’m wrong just because I’m different; never to think I’m a lesser citizen than my neighbor, just because I chose and he was born to it. It means I have rights and responsibilities, and among those responsibilities I must be true to the person I am; to that person who this country’s representatives examined, who they found worthy. It means, not just my country being my future, but my being part of the future of my country. As the judge declared; without change, our country stagnates; if we do not value those who feel the call to join us, we devalue ourselves; and so I felt valued.

America is my home now, not just the place I live and pay my taxes. It may not be the best or the freest or the kindest or the most honorable place, but it is the country to which I owe my allegiance. It is the country where I must strive to be my best, my freest, my kindest and my most honorable.

They called us forward, one by one, name and country of origin, to receive our citizenship certificates; fourteen countries represented. And finally they showed us one more video; the President of the United States addressed us as “My fellow Americans.”

This is what America means to me now.

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