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A special day? (part 2)

January 18th, 2009 · 3 Comments

The other day, fresh from the US citizenship experience, I found myself with a lot to write, and very little time. This blog post is about the hour and fifteen minutes at the Campbell Heritage Theater, and I promise I will stay on track. [The “backspace” key on my keyboard is a friend that will help me be true to my word: I can always delete the previous sentence… yeah, that’s cheating]

The ceremony started at 10AM. I was not exactly late, but I was not exactly on time either. I did not know how many people were going to gather there before I arrived, but as you can expect, 476 new citizens can use up a lot of parking lot. So by the time I arrived, it seemed like the entire theater parking was taken. I had to spend a few extra minutes to reach a different parking lot, with a big sign “Restricted parking, violators will be towed”, and to reach the conclusion that I could consider the towing expense an incidental extra fee worth paying to finish off the U.S. naturalization process. In the end I parked there, and followed the procession of violators (obviously I was not alone) back to the main theater’s entrance. The form I held in my hand included a few questions, one of them was something like “Have you committed any crime since the day of your interview (including traffic violations)?”. I found it rather amusing that my answer to that question could change while I was sitting in the theater, but I hoped for the best.

As I reached the door, a few officers welcomed me. The choice of words is not mine. They looked like volunteers in plain clothes, but they referred to each other as “officers”, so I should stick to that as well. “Please hand this paper to the other officer there”, “Who, the old lady?”. The gate keeper would not let you enter unless you could answer the question “How many days have you been out of the country since your interview date?”. I still wonder why that matters, but it’s not the kind of thing a frequent traveller like myself can remember off the top of his head. I ventured an answer, “20 days”. It matched closely the Christmas time I had spent at home, but it turned out to be the wrong answer, as I recalled how the european road show, my weeks in Japan and China and my first visit to Taiwan all happened after my interview. I guess this is becoming my little public secret. Anyway, that answer, plus the fact that I was surrendering a green card, put me in category number 8, whatever that means. I continued on the right hand side, as more officers welcomed me and handed me a large envelope, a smaller envelope, a pen. Finally, one lady took the paper with the big number 8 on it, and showed me to my seat.

As more new fellow citizens sat around me, I noticed that many of them had brought their little fan clubs. Wives, husbands, children, boyfriends and girlfriend were sitting upstairs, cheering their loved ones gathered downstairs for the ceremony and the Oath. They probably represented the demographic section who thought this was an important day, worth sharing with others.

An officer on the stage welcomed us, first in english, then in spanish. As it turned out, he was not the Master of Ceremony, he was just the spanish speaking representative, charged with the responsibility of the first two languages. He was followed by a lady welcoming us in vietnamese, another one welcoming us in chinese, and a guy welcoming us in tagalog. Their job included drawing our attention toward the smaller envelope, where the “Voter registration form” was. What struck me about this initial process was the choice of languages elevated to the role of official means to deliver the welcoming messages. Why not hindi? Why not french? Why not russian? I started imagining the United States, as this cradle of civilization torn between the east and the west of the world. The eastern U.S. influenced by Europe, the western U.S. more and more similar to the asian countries on the other side of the pacific. The Appalachian mountains and the midwestern great plains more successful than two oceans at cultural divides.

If one looks at the Voter registration form of the county of Santa Clara, that divide is even more obvious. For the multiple choice question “I prefer my election material in”, the answer can be chosen among english, japanese, vietnamese, tagalog, korean, chinese and spanish. I guess italian would be an option if I was registering in New York City, but not here. The other oddity about the form itself is that, although one can choose among 7 different languages for the election material, the actual form can only be read in english or in traditional chinese. The welcoming message in chinese started with “早安”, and although I could not guess the accent of the lady speaking on the stage, “早安” is something that I’ve never heard outside of Taiwan. My 大陆/国内 friends might not be amused. I’ve always wondered how chinese interpret different accents, but this topic is probably better left for a different post.

After the variety of welcoming messages, a recording told us how to fill out the Voter registration form, “but please refrain from signing it until after your Oath”, we were told at least a couple of times. The awkward precision of the process made me sweat about my “tow away” situation. I can’t sign the form because by signing I’m declaring “I’m a U.S. citizen […]”, and technically I’m not one until my Oath of Allegiance, although i was promised I would become one in the next 5 minutes, and I’m not really sure what type of perils could be between me and that Oath.

More speakers started appearing on the stage, and each one of them had some words of wisdom for us. First, a lady gave us a few examples of famous american citizens who had been naturalized late in their life. In good american spirit, the appetizer was a list of living people whose name was unknown to me, sampled from the pop culture of TV series and sports celebrities. That left me pretty cold, but luckily it was followed by more respected names of accomplished people who were by now part of history, and not pop history.

We then all sung the national anthem, the lyrics on a slide show on the stage, and a performer guiding us through the complex melody. The Oath of Allegiance was next, and although I’ve already spent enough time on that in a previous post, that was the official moment we had legally become United State citizens. So it triggered an often repeated joke from the speakers on the stage from that point on. “My fellow citizens – how does that sound? […]”, “My fellow Americans – how does that sound? […]”. It sounds like… I don’t know… but after a while it definitely started sounding annoying, at least the joke.

One interesting thing about the Oath was the way they made us stand up. They didn’t just say “Please stand up”. They rather went through the trouble of asking people to stand up and stay standing as their [former] country of citizenship was being called. And so they went on listing country names as people stood up and looked around. That has been the part of the process I’ve enjoyed the most. For every country name, less than a handful of people stood up. Then came “China”, and you could hear a rumble in the room as an unquantified but large number of people left their seat. The second rumble came when India was called, and in strict alphabetical order, the third and last rumble was for Mexico. The person on the stage reciting the country names showed a certain pleasure in his face as he allowed himself a longer pause while the rumbles were settling. A couple of things surprised me, toward the end of the list. First, when it was time for the “T” countries, the name “Taiwan” popped up. I would not have paid attention if it wasn’t that the person in front of me finally stood up. We said “countries” right? I don’t want to get into the delicate diplomatic situation between China and Taiwan, but an official immigration ceremony recognizing Taiwan as a separate country took me by surprise. I guess immigration is purely an internal business of the U.S.A., and does not bear any diplomatic consequences. Plus, it’s true that from a visa standpoint, mainland and Taiwan chinese are subject to different rules, so one could expect that same differentiation to reflect in the immigration policies, hence spelling out Taiwan would be appropriate. In stark contrast with the Taiwanese choice, the list ended with “Those whose country name has not yet been called, please stand up now”. A statement that confirms there are places in the world that are not recognized as countries by the United States, let’s not get into the merit of it, and just stand up. Or maybe it was just a way to say “Hey, you did not pay attention and missed when we called your country, please stand up now”.

The last official piece was the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag. For that, a woman out of us 476 new U.S. citizens-how-does-that-sound went on the stage. The gig had been planned, she was not randomly selected at the last minute, and that made me wonder what form had she filed to get that honor. Anyway, british accent, hot looks (at least from my [disad]vintage point), she read the Pledge out loud and we all followed, words on the big screen again. She was then given her certificate of naturalization right there on the stage. She was the only one with a certificate, at that point.

Next was another lady in the 476 of us. She went on the stage and started reading her story. Perfect northern cal accent, she had moved from Greece at the age of 5, studied at San Jose State University, and was now working at HP. Her story was expressed nicely, but there was nothing special about what she was telling us. Nothing heroic, no special struggle that would not be shared by all teenagers in the world as they try to find their path in life. I guess she was just highlighting all the opportunities that America offered to her… “this message brought you by your friendly immigration officers”. Again, she was on the stage, she got her certificate of naturalization right there, and I wondered, what kind of form did she have to file to get that opportunity/privilege? I started suspecting that whom you know might make a slight difference even in that theater. Not that I wanted to be in her place. I actually started toying with the idea that there was a minuscule chance we would all be called on the stage for our 2 minutes of celebrity, and I would not go back home for the nex 3 days. I was glad to discover she was the last one of us to go on the stage.

It was then George W. Bush’s turn, from a recording showing on the big screen, to tell us “I’m proud to be your President”. For 5 more days, and I giggled. We are probably going to be the last group of people to see that recording.

Our Naturalization Certificates were then orderly distributed to all of us, taking advantage of the knowledge the officers had of who was sitting where. As I was given mine, the officer said “You may leave now”. One hour and fifteen minutes after I entered the theaters doors, I rushed to that parking lot, and my car was still waiting for me. Oddly, as I was leaving, the area outside the theater was deserted. Most people were still inside, and I wondered if I was missing something, but I left. It didn’t take long to realize that my green card was gone, and that the process did not include any option to apply for a U.S. passport right away. After all, as a citizen of any country, you’re not born with a passport, and as we were stripped of our ability to travel abroad (or more exactly, to come back in) with our green card, nobody felt we needed a replacement right away. “This is the best place in the world, where do you need to go?”.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gerald // Jan 19, 2009 at 10:43 am

    BTW, they were asking whether you had COMMITTED a crime, not whether you had been caught. By parking in the forbidden lot committed the crime. Then you lied. You should be ashamed of yourself. And all this on the most important day of your life.

  • 2 marcodb // Jan 19, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Hmmm, I think the question was about being convicted of a crime, not about having committed a crime. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the form to verify. If the question was “have you committed a crime”, and that had included disobeying traffic rules, it would have been a rhetorical question! If you’ve never been consciously speeding above the speed limits, you’re in a very very small club.

  • 3 marcodb // Jan 24, 2009 at 2:16 am

    Ok, so, here’s the form: http://www.ilw.com/forms/N445.pdf
    On the second page, question 3 is very interesting: “Have you knowingly committed any crime or offense, for which you have not been arrested?”. However, this question does not cover traffic violations. Traffic violations are included only in question 4, which is posed very differently: “Have you been arrested, cited, charged, indicted, convicted, fined or imprisoned for […]”. Case closed!