You'd think weapons scientists and surgically altered actresses had nothing in common, right? You'd be wrong about that. But perhaps the only way to discover the connection is, as I did, to become an American citizen.
Dressed appropriately, the Wizard, a couple of friends and I shot off to an older, but nicely renovated small town theater to be naturalized (well, I did; they came to watch). And it was the experience of a lifetime. But perhaps not in the way a potential immigrant would expect. I was happy for the whole thing to be so multi-cultural — information about voting in 5 languages, people of different races and cultures so alive and so visible — but I was shocked by the images of America that pervaded the ceremony.
I'm not a great believer in ritual; I learned that ceremony doesn't always make the difference you think it should shortly after we were married. But I do believe that what we say and do in ritual and ceremony are key to understanding what we think about ourselves - as people and as a culture. So, I was curious about what I would think and feel about being in a room, in a highly emotional situation, with a lot of people all doing and saying the same thing. I don't do group. It scares the *!@#* out of me. For a while, I wasn't even sure I would say the required oaths aloud — I don't say them for the country I was born in, so I wasn't clear on what would make me say them for a country I was choosing. (I did, though. Just this once. I even placed my hand over my heart, but I did not stand — more on that later.)
I don't know how much you know about the process. But it's like being in a machine: 500 people in my ceremony, and they were doing three ceremonies on my day. I was very unaware. I won't say naive, because I guess I could have found out more, had I asked; I just didn't think to find out. I didn't even know who would be performing the ceremony or who else would be there. What would I have to do? These were questions to which I should have had answers, because as it was, I was unprepared.
The people being sworn in were separated from our families; we sat in rows according to some impenetrable system (whether or not we had a certain number of points on our application? people in our party? who knows?). I and the only other wheelchair user were placed at the back of the hall behind a wall over which I could barely see. I was prepared for it to be a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual gathering; I was curious about what the disability take would be.
Disability and immigration have a long history of something between uneasiness and rampant discrimination. At the moment, the ACLU has filed suit against the deportation and indefinite detention of people who are not able to understand the proceedings against them. Canada recently denied the immigration of a family, because one of the children was disabled (link to a summary of Canadian policy and the idea of disability as an "excessive demand" on the system). This link is to a post on my site about the quirks, disability and otherwise, of the N-400, the form you file to apply for naturalization.
As we waited to become American, a screen slideshow of iconic images of the US floated before us; the photographs, mainly of North-East coastal American and San Francisco, were accompanied by military music. This made sense: between the pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, New England lighthouses and Mount Rushmore (no, not coastal), were pictures of America's troops, her planes, her ships, and her other paraphernalia of war. I was curious about the people in the pictures of immigrants of the past — shown, of course, in huddled, downtrodden mass poses of people yearning to be free. What had happened to them? Where had they gone?
Mostly, though, I was surprised by the pictures chosen as representative of the country. So many politicians seem to refer to the mid-West and South as places of the average American, but there were no pictures of, as my friend put it, "waving wheat." No, the America pictured was both coastal and warlike. For some, the coasts are home to America's elite. And this made the conjunction of imagery somewhat incongruous. Do Washington, New York, and New England elites fight the country's wars?
I don't know how much standardization there is between ceremonies. Was mine an accident of location or are they all like this? Who conducts them? (An official from USCIS, it turns out). I worry about standardization because mine was totally chaotic. It's an awful thing to say. But it was totally chaotic. The officiator had not practiced what he was going to say. So, he just talked; he wasn't the best of public speakers. I think he was aiming for inspirational, but he didn't have anything original or new to say. He rambled (he probably does a gazillion of these things and the awesome nature of the moment wears thin). When he opened it up to his counterpart, they joined in reading a list of notable Americans.
I have to admit. Many of the names read aloud were unfamiliar to me, so the effect is clearly a product of my ignorance. Nonetheless, the names that I recognized were either famous weapons scientists or actors. You can imagine my horror at, and I quote verbatim, the following string of names: Liam Neeson, Madeleine Albright, Pamela Anderson… Yes, you read that aright. My jaw hit the floor, and I missed the other names. I looked around; no one else seemed perturbed and the moment rolled by: these are notable Americans. And, in truth, I guess they are. After all, no one has heard of me; my name won't be read before thousands of people, eagerly anticipating the moment when they will become citizens of a great nation. Snobbery or not, I want to differentiate between the work of the first female Secretary of State and the work of an actress perhaps most famous for her body and personal life.
I was drawn back into the ceremony at the moment we were supposed to take the oath. We were called upon to stand; the other wheelchair user and I looked at each other. He winked; I rolled my eyes. He chortled and was shushed by his family. There was a roll-call of countries of origin; people had come from all over the world, including the USSR and also Russia. Unbeknownst to me, my peeps and I all had a similar moment: had the person from the USSR been in the system so long that their country of origin was now just Russia? Silicon Valley has a particular immigrant population: mostly, people hailed from India, Pakistan, China, or Mexico. There were a couple of Brits and Canadians.
The current naturalization oath is:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
I took it, reflecting on the exchange in my interview about whether I as a disabled person could bear arms — it was decided that I could usefully fly a drone plane. I found myself fascinated that the discourse of documented immigration is one of war while that of undocumented immigration is one of work. War disables so many of America's citizens, transferring them in an instant from membership in a group of those represented in her defining imagery to membership in a group with the highest unemployment statistics. Once a soldier; now, mostly, invisible.
But before I could get any further following the bitter irony, I had become a Yank. We were formally invited to wave our flags. I opened my voter registration materials, took out my little plastic flag, glanced at my disabled comrade to my right, and held it up in front of me.
Want to see your work here? Email us!
Image via Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock.com.