Becoming American – Kate Paulk
What feels like an eternity ago I started a journey that has involved a lot of money, multiple panic attacks, quite a lot doubt, and at least one complete meltdown. The first stage of that journey ended at about 10:15 am on July 20th, when I became a citizen of the United States of America.
I say “about” because I’m not sure exactly what time it was: despite the bureaucratic persnicketiness I’d battled in the past, actually becoming a citizen is remarkably simple (Qualifying to become one, on the other hand…)
The procedure went a little like this: around 8:30 in the morning the not quite twenty of us becoming citizens gathered outside Berks County Courthouse Courtroom 5A (http://www.co.berks.pa.us/Dept/Courts/Admin/Pages/Courtroom5A.aspx) with friends and family. Soon after we were ushered into the courtroom, where soon-to-be citizens were asked to sit on the right, and friends and family to the left.
The atmosphere was friendly and cheerful while the final round of paperwork (a short form confirming that we hadn’t done anything to render us not of good character to become a citizen in the time since our naturalization interviews) was dealt with and everyone had the chance to check over their naturalization certificates and make sure there weren’t any mistakes, as well as to sign the certificate. Mine had no mistakes, but I’m not so sure about the resting bitch face photo on it. It’s recognizably me, which is the important bit, but my vanity is a little miffed I wound up with such an ugly picture. Oh, well.
We were also told how the ceremony would progress, reminded (several times) that during the ceremony photography wasn’t permitted but photos before and after were allowed, and that a group photo would be taken and mailed to us all. It was all very friendly and low-key.
At close to exactly ten am, the presiding judge entered the courtroom and the ceremony started. There were a few short introductory remarks from the president of the local county Bar Association welcoming everyone and especially those of us taking citizenship, then the pleasant elderly gentleman from Immigration (with a mouthful of a title) formally moved that the oath be administered.
When the judge gave his assent, he called the names of our nations of origin. Me being from Australia, I was the first one listed. Some of the others were from (I don’t remember all the countries: there are just what I do remember) Italy, Romania, Mexico, Vietnam, Philippines… Quite the diverse collection of origins. Each of us stood as our original nation was named.
We were asked to raise our right hands, then the judge read the Oath of Allegiance (in “Do you…” form rather than the “I…” form on our printouts) At the end, all of us said, “I do, so help me God.”
That was the moment I became a citizen of the United States of America.
It wasn’t the multiple forms I’d signed, or the signature that went on my certificate, but giving the Oath of Allegiance – an old-fashioned, purely verbal action on my part.
The local high school’s US Marine Corps JROTC Color Guard presented the colors once we’d given the oath (and did it very well, too), then a music student with a lovely sweet soprano sang the National Anthem – which is when my eyes started to leak, because it hit me right then that this was my National Anthem now, and it went from being a nice song if rather difficult to sing well to meaning something (meaning rather a lot, as it happens).
After that, we new citizens gave the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time, then the first speaker gave his remarks.
And that cemented quite a few things: he spoke about how we’d gone from being tenants to being homeowners, and that like a home, a nation like the USA needs a certain amount of maintenance or it will fall apart. That maintenance consists of such things as voting in all the elections – and that local elections are more important than the presidential race, because the local officials are the ones who run your courts, your schools, your towns; it consists of jury duty, and being part of your community, and all the many little things that make for good citizenship across the full spectrum of life.
The judge’s remarks were just as focused on the responsibilities that go with citizenship as the rights it confers. He pointed out that we weren’t expected to abandon the culture and traditions of our respective homelands, but to meld them into the culture and traditions of our surrounding community, to integrate ourselves and our distinctive traits into the larger whole to help make the USA a better nation – and that this is the spirit of E Pluribus Unum.
The judge also made a rather strong comment that it’s a bad thing to sit around with your hands out waiting for someone to do things for you: instead look to President Kennedy’s famous remarks “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
After all of this, it was almost an anticlimax to be called out to collect my certificate and a collection of other bits and pieces (including a passport application form). Almost.
I’m still processing the thing, but it was a pleasant surprise to have such a traditional (in all the good ways) ceremony and so much emphasis on the duties that go with citizenship and exercising one’s rights, and on the need for all citizens to fulfill those duties for the nation to remain healthy. To be told outright that to be a citizen of a nation like the USA is hard work, because too many people seem to have forgotten this – a nation that is ruled by “We, the people” must be maintained by “We, the people” or it becomes corrupt and slides back to a tyranny where a few people control things and everyone else is expected to do as they’re told.
I’m up for the job. I just can’t do it all on my own: the other two hundred million or so of you are going to have to help.