What Citizenship Means to Me

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I was weaned off of patriotism over the course of my ten years in the United States. Encouraged by the biggest cynic in my life, my older brother and later by my liberal-minded friends, it seemed that anywhere I looked I could find hypocrisy and discrimination, hate and fear. 

When I became a naturalized citizen in 2016, my skepticism was reaffirmed. I didn’t feel much different, and no one treated me any differently than before I had received U.S. citizenship. I still encountered the same frequency of racism and ignorance as in 2008 when my family was living in Texas on a work visa. 

Thus, when I learned that Durham Academy was hosting a naturalization ceremony, I was certain that the school was intruding on something that did not belong to them. The citizens-to-be would walk across the stage for display as we looked on, like spectators at a zoo. I held onto this suspicion until I spoke to Upper School Director of Community Service Anne McNamara. 

“It’s taken a lot of work from a lot of people,” Mrs. McNamara told me in her small, shared office. “We had to get in touch with the citizenship and immigration office [and] have them agree... that we could do this with respect and do it properly—to have enough space, and to have video capabilities.” 

Durham Academy would become the venue for the ceremony. While I had received my citizenship without any heartfelt opening speeches nor a talented band and chorus on illuminated stage, the twenty individuals from twelve different countries would become American citizens in Kenan Auditorium with 500 pairs of eyes on them. 

On November 15th, I still felt wary about how the ceremony would proceed. As I sat in my advisory’s row near the back of the auditorium, I carefully watched every small action on the stage. How are the speakers looking at the seated guests on stage right? Do the citizens-to-be look uncomfortable, annoyed, offended? Are any of the woodwinds in Mr. Meyer’s concert band clicking their keys? 

The whole thing passed without a hiccup, and, I admit that the ceremony was quite spectacular. However, there was one video in the program that aroused the cynic in me. The screen had fluttered with quotes about the freedom and opportunities that were available in the U.S. And afterwards, I made sure to ask the new citizens some questions for my own benefit. 

In the Learning Commons, I ran into a man from Nigeria, and when I asked him how it felt to be on stage, he told me, “It was great.” He said that he felt no nervousness or discomfort, and he seemed in a good mood—enough to convince me that the experience had been a positive one for him, at least. Even when I approached a less jovial-looking man from Argentina, he told me the same as the man who I had spoken with before. 

But I still had some qualms about the grandiose nature of the ceremony; for I could not imagine being up on stage and revealing a piece of my immigration experience to hundreds of teenagers I had never met. 

And finally, I got the answer I wanted from a woman dressed in a sharp suit, who had moved from Russia eight years ago. “I’m a shy person in general,” she said. “I was very nervous.” 

I knew that these new citizens had been judged and would continue to be judged on account of their accent or their appearance because I had experienced it myself growing up. And I had expected that citizenship would be as superficial to them as it did to me. 

However, the last person I spoke to that day encouraged me to think differently. I sat down next to Alma, who had finally gotten her citizenship after having lived in the U.S. for 23 years, and asked her what citizenship meant to her. 

“Being from where I’m from and living here for this long, I really feel like I don’t know which way to lean—I don’t know where I’m from. So it’s like we’re in a limbo,” she said. “But right now I feel like, ‘Yes, I am from here.’” 

When I shared with her my skepticism about citizenship, she told me, “The difference is you. You defend yourself with the knowledge. That’s the difference.” 

The Russian woman in the suit had told me in addition to admitting her shyness, “I think I will be more involved in politics. Before [becoming a citizen] I was kind of, ‘I can’t decide anything, so I’ll just turn on the news now and then.’” 

I will not be confessing my patriotic love for America any time soon, but for now, I can say I am glad to have been a part of those twenty people’s experience and to have lived through the naturalization process once more.