I was the first in my family to take out U.S. citizenship. After a simple test with questions such as “name three rights of U.S. citizens” — I was aided by the examiner’s discreet glance at a framed copy of the Bill of Rights hanging on the wall, I received notice that I had passed and the date and place of my swearing in.
In a stifling court room in Hackensack, New Jersey, I was one of 114 foreigners, ranging from infants to octogenarians with every tint of human skin color. In unison, we raised our right hands and disclaimed allegiance to any “foreign prince or potentate,” and thus became newly minted, full-fledged Americans. That weekend I hosted a citizenship barbecue, and my mother baked me a chocolate cake, iced red and blue like the Star Spangled Banner.
It had certainly been a rollercoaster of a journey to get to that point. I moved to New Jersey from Sydney, Australia, when I was 13 for my dad’s job. Like many people around the planet, what I knew of the USA came largely from TV shows, which are unwittingly the biggest propaganda machine for American culture, system and values. Baseball and “The Brady Bunch.” Disneyland and Donald Duck. Hamburgers and French fries. The accents that stretched and flattened o’s, turning “hop” into “haap” and the growling hard r’s.
In preparation for the move, Dad tacked up a map of the USA onto the kitchen wall so we could study all the states in our new home country as we ate. The prospect of moving to America was exciting. We’d have two summers in a year (in the southern hemisphere the seasons are reversed), get to eat whipped cream from a can and actually see and touch snow.
Of course, life in reality is much different than life on television.
It was rough going, above all in that first year. Although I spoke English (I thought), Americans couldn’t understand me. I had to repeat everything, sometimes multiple times. Every time I opened my mouth in class, heads swiveled to see where this weird accent was coming from, which made me never want to speak. People kept asking if I was from Britain, which I found puzzling. Australian accents don’t sound anything like English accents, but to Americans I guess they do. One girl seemed to resent my way of speech when I told her, “your locker isn’t closed properly.” “Why can’t you just say it isn’t closed ‘right’?” she snarked with undue vehemence that took me aback.
Everything about me didn’t fit in. I didn’t own any jeans or sneakers. I got marked wrong for spelling words the British way, such as “colour.” Every time my parents made a right turn in the car, my stomach lurched at what my instinct told me was an impending head on collision. (Australia follows the British model of driving on the left side of the road with the steering wheel on the right side of the car.) When winter arrived, the novelty of seeing snow quickly melted as I slipped on ice and shivered uncontrollably at the bus stop.
I was desperately homesick and pestered Dad no end, “when are we going back?” But when we did go back — just for a visit, I didn’t fit in there, either. Family and friends said I was “American,” even though I didn’t feel or particularly want to be American. But of course to them, I was American. I had had to adapt in the age-old process of immigrant survival. They didn’t understand that, just as Americans didn’t much understand what it was like to arrive in a new country despite their immigrant backgrounds.
A few years later, I gained my right to vote along with my new passport. I celebrate that right in every election because of what I went through to become American, and I know other immigrants who went through a great deal more than I did. Leaving countries is a traumatic experience, but taking out citizenship also doesn’t change you, it changes your circumstance. Where you come from is embedded in you forever. Citizenship is just another step in the process of adapting to a new life and making a future.