I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America (and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all) on April 29, 2005. It was my parents’ wedding anniversary, and when I called India to wish them that morning, my mother choked as she gave her blessings, and my father asked me to convey his greetings to the White House.
Since it was a day of new beginnings, I did something I had never done before: I drove myself to downtown Los Angeles, where the naturalization ceremony was being held. As I circled the Convention Center in search of an entrance not blocked by orange cones, I accidentally missed a traffic light. It was a small intersection, unguarded by police officer or red-light camera, and one of my last thoughts as an Indian citizen was “Thank God!” The ticket would have been costly, and I had already paid enough (monetarily and otherwise) over the course of my six-year immigration saga.
I had received my resident alien card (the green card that’s white) in April 2001, and I made the decision to trade it for a US passport five months later, on Monday, September 10. That evening I attended a lecture given by an Indian man who’d migrated to LA thirty years before, and something he said made me realize how much I loved this country. That’s when I decided that when the time came, I would file for US citizenship. I awoke next morning to a grave new world, one in which the love of every American, born or naturalized, would be tried by fire.
One of the hallmarks of life in a post-9/11 world is the extensive nature of security checks, and by April 29, 2005 I had traveled enough to know that the procedure would be a long one. I was not wrong. It took almost two hours from the time I entered the Convention Center to reach my seat. (This was the second of three ceremonies being held that day, and each would be attended by six thousand new citizens.) As I inched along the serpentine line, after having my person and property searched thoroughly, I was glad that, in one of the many exchanges this day represented, I had traded vanity for comfort by wearing low heels.
At the end of the line I received a packet that included a booklet containing some important American documents (such as the Declaration of Independence), a letter from the President, and my first flag. “I hope it’s not made in China,” I remarked, and the woman in front of me (who was not Chinese) turned around and frowned, to chide me for entertaining such an unpatriotic thought. I grinned back, then heaved an exaggerated sigh when I spotted “Made in USA” printed in microscopic type on the bottommost stripe.
Despite my attempts to memorize every detail of the oath ceremony, most of it went by as a blur and I can remember only three things with clarity. The judge administering the oath told the story about how his mother had migrated to New York from the Eastern Bloc. After chronicling how immigration had changed her life for the better (initial struggles notwithstanding), the judge reminded us about the rights, privileges, and duties we were about to assume, concluding his speech with a statement that made me tear up. “From today America is not just your home,” he said. “It’s your country.”
My other memories are less sublime. The woman who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” was unable to hit the high note at the end of “the land of the free,” making me wish that “America, the Beautiful,” with its easier tune, had been the national anthem. Second, this being LA, could anything happen without at least one celebrity in the picture?
A soap star’s South African husband was becoming naturalized, and the entire family had been given VIP seats in the front row (while other people’s friends and relatives were relegated to a dim, cordoned-off area at the back). When the ceremony ended, several officials stopped by to congratulate the man and get his wife’s autograph. Since no one was pestering me thus, I gathered my belongings and left the hall waving my new flag.
After receiving my naturalization certificate, I walked to the terrace overlooking the Staples Center (splashed with a giant Kobe) and was enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the city when I heard the flapping of papers behind me. I turned around to see a woman dressed in red, white, and blue (top hat et al) waving a form at me. She pointed to the Republican and Democrat booths at the other end of the terrace and thrust the voter registration form into my hand, saying very slowly, “Have. You. Reg. Is. Tered. To. Vote?”
At the time I felt sorry for her, thinking she had a speech impediment, but I later realized that she probably thought me one of those new citizens who didn’t know the language very well. (And I must admit, I was still learning American English.) So much as I wanted to keep gazing at Kobe and the San Gabriels, my compassion for the lady moved me to accept the form with a sympathetic smile, but what I did next was inspired by more than compassion for a new compatriot. Having just crossed the Rubicon, I knew I must do my civic duty. Ergo, I went, I registered, I voted.
When I checked my mailbox last night, I was relieved to find only one piece. Usually my box is filled with flyers and other junk that I then have to make an effort to discard (my building’s dumpster has a very heavy lid). But this wasn’t junk, so I must now make an effort to keep it (with the other paperwork cluttering my desk). I must keep it because it’s a reminder to do one’s civic duty, as all good citizens should.