Today, I finally got “naturalized” as an American Citizen. It was done at a courthouse in a part of Brooklyn near where, in 1776 this week, George Washington decided to scram away from British forces in cover of night and mist, a defeat that eventually helped win the Revolutionary War. Fast/Forward 240 years later, we all thank General Washington for chickening out that night to live and fight another day, so that this country should exist and welcome us all in its wings.
I take the oath today amidst uncertainty for immigrants. Last week, news came out that this administration is planning to rubber stamp new policy that would impede this transition into citizenship. As is frequently true with me, I coasted into this spot in the nick of time. It seems like a faustian bargain to pledge allegiance to this country at a time when its leaders are ready to curtail the rights of its newcomers, to turn their back against us. There is also new chaos in the White House. On the same day, two of the President’s men are either convicted or has plead guilty to fraud and campaign violations, presumably tightening the proverbial noose. Still, I am very fully aware that today’s ceremony is about an opportunity scarcely given to many, and more people still take pains to come to this country than to leave it. From the home country, news of daily killings among cops and politicians trickle on the news feed. A young man is beaten by cops in a disturbing vignette in the chaotic War on Drugs. Not even Faust had had to choose between these two devils.
The court where we will be processed one final time is grand and imposing, bigger than how courts usually appear in movies. On its walls, portraits in the style of Rembrandt hang on the wall. These are the judges that have presided over these halls, intimidating faces, judging you judging you. There are 45 frames, only two of which contained a woman, only one is black. At the back of the room a huge Edward Laning mural, originally from Ellis Island, depicted laborers setting down train tracks.
The ceremony was to start at 8:30, but already a line had formed outside the courthouse as early as 7 am. Once we entered, cellphones were sequestered. Inside the courtroom, an assured woman with vitiligo ushered us into our seats. It will be a full house, she said, there will be 260 new citizens at the end of this ritual. Slowly the room filled up, the door would open and would-be citizens from all walks of life shuffle in. Albanians to Yemenis, Bolivians to Zimbabweans, a cross section of the world’s poor countries, or places racked by civil war, folks looking to seek refuge. A few come with their whole families, in strollers; still a few come with their American spouses. Some come in the garb of their native land. The last to arrive was a man who clearly had cerebellar ataxia, assisted by who I think is a home health aide. As he loses his balance and ambulation, the whole world rooted for him: a couple more steps, sir, a few more feet, you’ve come a long way for this. He is unable to advance, but a strapping young man stands up from the jury section and whisks him into his seat. The old man thanks him, and the young man sweetly taps his face.
More paperwork: did you travel outside the USA since your interview? Did you get married? Have you managed to get arrested? Did you change you name? A woman raises her arms and asked to anglicize her name from Aung Soon Yee to Yolanda Rotten, which will be filed under the Whatever Floats Your Boat column. The man to my right was from Tibet and had traveled to China. He asks if I could write that down for him on his sheet, and to write “Brooklyn New York.” on the box. I gladly helped, we are all in this together. The lady seated on my other side gets impatient, she had somewhere else to go, she’s hungry, she complained. She asks me what time this will finish? I said, “Do you have better things to do?” rather snappily. “I didn’t eat breakfast,” she persists, “Its unfair that we can’t bring coffee in here.” Gurrl this is a courthouse, i telepathically said to her and she shut up.
Meanwhile the immigration officers running this show are impressive. You know what they say: American clerks, a system that twerks, taking an hour and a half to finish processing all 260 souls like clockwork. After the paperwork, two young kids (I say kids) from Flushing come into the courtroom to register us to vote. This is the meat and potatoes of citizenship, the bestowal of your right to vote. The American vote is one of the most powerful in the world, your decision not only affects you nor your neighbor, but fates of many people in the whole wide world, and I say that without exxag, and I take it seriously. Except…
The hungry/thirsty lady next to me surged up again. “What political party are you?” she asked. “Secret,” I said. She persists “I’m voting for Trump, Womans like Trump and Trump like Womans.” I look at her trying to empathize but could not. I said, “Only if he could grab you by your you know what.” My sarcasm escapes her though, and she proceeds to say, “Change…globally.” She then makes a circle with her index finger at my face, then asks “What political party is Trump?” To which i say, “Democrat.” Hungry lady ticks off “Democrat” on her voter form FTW.
At last it was time for the pledge of allegiance. The clerks said they were going to call the judge in, and the room gets tense. “You may no longer exit the courtroom” said one, “If you leave and the judge starts the oath, we will not let you in. You will have to come back another day for your oath taking and you will not receive your certificate.” Stern warning. To deaf ears. No sooner than the clerks issued the admonition, some dare a bathroom run. A man in his fifties, speaking Cantonese, goes rogue and gave a look of “watch me,” and this defiant mantra, “If you gotta go, you gotta go,” another good citizen in true American form.
The judge finally checks in at around 11 am, she is accompanied by two children about 11 and 12 years of age. Judge is cheerful, rather like a happy Judge Judy with long hair down to her waist. All rise, she congratulates us and we take the oath. “OathOoathoath”, we say it rather perfunctorily, a sultry, anticlimactic denouement to a 20 year quest for citizenship. The kids lead the allegiance to the flag. I look at the room again, and so here I am among this beautiful collection of faces, colors, all levels of swarthiness, all degrees of blondness, all hues of eye color, abilities and disabilities. Judge Marilyn Chen (if i remember her name correctly) began her speech by acknowledging what we all had to go through to become American citizens. She herself remembers when her parents brought her here from China when she was only 6 years old. Her parents had come looking for economic opportunity. She gave them tribute for their hard work. “We must constantly remind ourselves that the greatness of this country comes form our common histories, that we have all come from somewhere else looking for a better life,” she said. “We must take strength in what we have in common rather than go lost in the differences between us.” I’ve heard this speech before or some such words, but this time it takes on a charged, personal tone.
She then calls our attention to the back of the room, to the Edward Laning mural that was originally installed back in 1938 on Ellis Island. The giant mural depicted figures engaged in the work of building railroads and fueling factories, debarking from ships, and beginning their lives in America. It is called “The Role Of Immigrants In The Industrial Development of America.”