May 21st, 2014
Today I took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America in Oakland, CA. I was one among 1206 immigrants from 112 countries across the globe. Peter, the man to my right was a software engineer with Google; he was originally from Russia. The lady to my left was from the Philippines. And the two Canadians behind me really belted out The Star Spangled Banner when the time came – they could have been leading the singing. It was a ceremony that seemed to veer between moments that moved me to tears, to whole speeches of abject tedium. Sorry, but listening to instructions on how to register my change of status with Social Security while I’m still wiping away the tears that fell during the film featuring hopeful faces of immigrants coming through Ellis Island, was a bit weird. But it was a glorious day. In fact, it felt like a wedding day, and in some ways, I suppose it was. I didn’t get a ring, but I plighted my troth to the USA after a long engagement.
At every step of the way we immigrants were greeted by smiling officials from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service who said, “Congratulations!”
First I had to hand over my green card. “You’re an American now,” said the woman checking me in. “You don’t need this any more.” I felt lost letting that little card go – it had exited and entered the USA with me many times; we were travel buddies. When I first came to America, I had terrible recurring dreams where I was in UK and had lost my green card. I invariably woke up crying due to the lingering thought that I couldn’t get back into the US again. I remember visiting my parents a few years ago, when my Dad was still alive – I mislaid my passport folder with the green card inside, and I had a complete meltdown. It was my nightmare come true. I was turning over clothes, pulling things out of my suitcase, and generally getting into a state. My Dad – who was a very laid back, methodical soul – came into my room and helped me look for it, and when we found the green card (yes, in the suitcase), he held me while I wept with relief.
My Dad adored America – he would have been so proud of me today. He was thrilled when my brother became an American citizen about eight years ago. I think it made Dad feel as if he were one step closer to being a cowboy – or to be more accurate, to having those wide open spaces around him. And that’s probably where it all started, this business of becoming an American. Call it early conditioning – the fact that my father loved westerns, either in print or on the screen. He had books upon books on American history, American culture, and he could go toe-to-toe with anyone when it came to native American tribal history.
Then there was my mum and her stories of “Yanks” in wartime London. I loved the images of confidence, of swagger, of generosity and a sense that everything was bigger in America. Of course, that put off a lot of people (“Over paid, over-sexed and over here,” as the saying went). I think I’ve told this story before on Naked Authors, but I will tell it again, because I love it.
My mother turned seventeen in the summer of 1944, and on her birthday – a Saturday – she and a couple of friends were in Hyde Park, London, enjoying a sunny day. Along came three young US Airmen, their caps tilted, their eyes on the girls. And of course the chat-up began. My mum’s friends told the boys that it was her birthday, so they asked her what she’d received in the way of gifts. My mum laughed – it was wartime in a city that had been relentlessly bombed for four years by that time, and along with rationing meant that she was lucky anyone remembered to say “Happy Birthday” let alone buy a gift. The guys were shocked – and arranged to meet the girls in a couple of hours. My mother and her friends thought they’d never see them again, but at the allotted time and place, there they were – arms filled with flowers, chocolates and nylon stockings, gifts for my 17-year-old mother. The airmen couldn’t stay – they had to get back to camp – so they waved and went on their way. My mother said she watched them running along the path, leaping on and off park benches, arms outstretched, one of them yelling, “Look at me, I’m a B29.” She offered her chocolates around in the air-raid shelter that night, but no one would accept (even though they really wanted one) because they were American chocolates and of course, there was the suggestion that you had to be “that sort of girl” to get a box of chocolates. So my mother – who was a bit cheeky, let it be said – sat there and ate every single chocolate in the box while giving a bite-by-bite description of each mouthful.
I think I can safely say that every immigrant in that theater came to America drawn by a story – perhaps that you can be anybody you want to be, in the USA, if you’re prepared to work for it. I came here borne aloft by stories of America. I’d entered the US many times as a visitor, but always knew in my heart that one day I would be here to stay . I was drawn by the mythology of America – but once here I had to work hard to make my hopes become dreams that came true. And I am not just waxing lyrical.
America is not a perfect place and never will be – thank the Lord. But it suits me very well indeed. I think I’ll stay.
Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend. And remember.
Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend. And remember.