The Price of Citizenship
After the horrors of this past week, I am glad to have something to write about which is not directly relevant to the attacks, yet which fits, in a very small way, with the national mood.
The terrorist attacks on the U.S. came, of course, on Tuesday, September 11th. Nobody is going to forget that in a hurry. In the life of the Derbyshire family, however, the previous Friday, September 7th, was a day to remember too, for happier reasons. Shortly after 11 a.m. that Friday morning, my wife became a U.S. citizen by naturalization.
Rosie was born in the city of Changsha, China, in 1962. We married in Jilin City, northeast China, in August 1986, and she came to the U.S. that November. Once the culture shock had worn off, she wanted to be American right away. Of course, and quite properly, "right away" doesn't happen; there are procedures to be gone through. She plowed doggedly through all of them, applying for each change of status — each step closer to full citizenship — the moment she could. Unlike her husband: I am a lazy and dilatory person, with a great loathing of paperwork of any kind. I shillied and shallied and put things off, with the result that she was soon way ahead of me on the citizenship track. I have since got my act together, and hope to attain citizenship next year; but it was plain she was going to make it to the finishing line first.
Make it she did, and on the morning of the seventh we set out at 6 a.m. for the federal court building in Brooklyn. The time of the oath ceremony was given as 8 a.m. and Brooklyn is only a 45-minute drive away in good conditions, but, said Rosie: "There's no way I'm going to miss this!" We took the kids — both citizens by birth — with us, to make a civics lesson out of it, and as we drove down the Long Island Expressway, explained to them what it meant that Mommy was to become an American. The six-year-old didn't quite get it. In a slightly puzzled tone, he asked: "Does that mean she won't be able to speak Chinese any more?"
The ceremony itself was almost all anti-climax. There were 200 people in there being processed. "Green cards" had to be turned in, identities established, misunderstandings to be sorted out. Many of the latter were linguistic: if there is still any requirement for new citizens to be competent in English, it sure doesn't show. I watched one applicant have an extremely simple instruction explained to him by a court official at least five times, slower and more clearly each time, as the applicant stood and listened with a blank expression of complete incomprehension on his face, till a relative came up and translated the instruction into Cantonese. The morning dragged on: nine o'clock, nine-thirty, ten, ten-thirty. The six-year-old was asleep. The eight-year-old was absorbed in Harry Potter.
The part that was not anti-climax was, of course, the actual oath. It was administered by a federal judge, a woman of Chinese origins herself, as she explained in a pretty little speech to us beforehand. After the speech all applicants took the oath. Again, the formalities of the oath-taking seem not to be very rigorously enforced: I saw two people whose lips did not move at all. Most, however, approached the thing with grave solemnity, and there were some wet cheeks. After the oath the new citizens all recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The sheet containing the oath and the pledge also had the first verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner." I assumed that we were going to sing it, and had been clearing my throat in preparation. I love to sing, so long as it is as a member of some crowd or congregation where no-one can actually hear me. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is an exceptionally fine song, and not at all as difficult as people say, if you start off in the right register. However, I was disappointed. There was no singing, I don't know why. I'd like to know why — what's the point of being a citizen if you have never sung the National Anthem?
Afterwards — it was now mid-day — we went for a celebratory lunch at TGI Friday's, and Rosie and I indulged ourselves in some interesting drinks, assuring each other that in a family restaurant like Friday's there wouldn't be much alcohol in the drinks. This proved to be a misjudgment, and the rest of that day is sort of blurred.
Saturday, however, was our street's block party. Among our many other blessings, we have terrific neighbors — not just a couple but a whole street-full, the majority young couples with kids, like us. Barriers were put up, the kids all got their bikes and scooters out, trestle tables were filled with food, and the local fire truck came to visit. Then, the neighbors having got wind of Rosie's naturalization, they held a little ceremony of their own to welcome her to America. At this point I must admit that even I myself teared up. Are there any other people like Americans? None that I've found. There was a cake, iced to look like Old Glory, and gifts, and cards of congratulation, and a bunch of stars-and-stripes helium balloons. The deejay played "This Land is Your Land." (That was my doing; everything else was our neighbors', bless them all.)
We tied the helium balloons to our mailbox. Sunday morning was damp, and under the weight of condensed moisture, the balloons had sunk to the ground when I went for my newspaper at seven. I untied them and took them inside, explaining to Rosie how heinous it is to let Old Glory touch the ground. I myself have a lot to learn about America (a whole lot, according to my more critical readers) and so does she; but that's part of the joy of the thing, filling in the gaps in each other's knowledge like this, sharing what we learn, passing it on to the kids.
Rosie, this land is your land, if not yet my land. Knowing you, I know you'll cherish your new country, and struggle to be worthy of her. As America has walked through the valley of the shadow of death these past few days, I have watched you walking proudly with her, adding your tears to her tears, making her grief your grief, her anger your anger. We can't say truthfully that this was a very strenuous test of your new patriotism: your involvement was only to watch the horror on TV and take the phone calls from anxious relatives. You felt it deeply, though, I could see that; not just for the humanity, but for the insult to your country. It's been a memorable baptism. You start out your life as an American knowing that, as lovable as this country might seem to you, it is an abomination in the eyes of others: knowing that, in the midst of all our silly hedonism, we can suddenly be called to sacrifice, like the heroes — is there any reason they should not be awarded plots in one of the National Cemeteries? — who took on the hijackers of flight 93: knowing that being an American citizen can carry a terribly high price.
Well, those are not bad lessons to learn starting out. Your Dad was a soldier, who fought for his country in Korea. He gave you a Chinese name meaning "red rose" because he foresaw, correctly, that you would be beautiful, but equipped with sharp thorns to present to any enemy fool enough to approach you. I know he taught you the soldierly virtues. God forbid you should ever have to pay that ultimate price for your citizenship, Rosie: but if you have to, I know you will, bravely and without flinching, like a soldier — like an American!