The Naturalization Oath Ceremony, and What It Means To Be a U.S. Citizen

I am now inside an auditorium with hundreds (thousands?) of people waiting to be sworn in

This morning at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, Massachusetts, I underwent the Naturalization Oath Ceremony and, along with 900 other individuals, became a U.S. citizen. I anticipated that it would be more of a chore than a thrill. But as the day went on, I realized that there was something beautiful and special about being able to go through this process, and I left with a greater appreciation of (what I'm now proud to call) my country.

I arrived promptly at 11 AM as I was instructed. I did not know that there would already be hundreds of people waiting to get inside.

The line of people waiting to become american citizens today

Rapidly approaching the door. What indoctrination/brainwashing procedure lies within?

After we were ushered inside, our names were checked off a list and government officials confiscated our Permanent Resident cards (or "green cards") and discarded them into a cardboard box. Kind of incredible to see so many permanent resident cards in one place [I was unable to take a photograph of the box]. Every one was given a packet of various sundries, which featured a few instructional forms about administrative stuff like applying for a passport or knowing your labor rights as a U.S. citizen. We also got novelty flags, plus a "Citizen's Almanac" and a copy of The Declaration of Independence.

Here is the American Citizen Welcome Pack, complete with novelty flag and "U.S. Citizen's Almanac"

Reading material for the wait until the Oath

Then we entered the auditorium, where we waited for everyone else to finish the check in process and awaited the presiding judge's arrival.

Panorama: the view from my seat of the thousands of people about to get sworn in

While I was waiting, I interviewed a fellow Oath-taker, Gustavo:

Listen!

After awhile, the presiding judge entered. The standard legal invocations were delivered, but then we got to the oath almost straight away. Here's video of all 900 people taking the Oath:




Afterwards, the judge gave us a heartwarming speech about how presiding over these ceremonies is one of the greatest joys of his career. These ceremonies are his way of participating in America's promise, of welcoming people into this glorious melting pot, and wishing them the best as we all work together to build a better country.

As a visual manifestation of how diverse the crowd was, the judge read off the names of all the different countries that were represented, asking people to stand up when their country was read. Here is video of that. I can tell you that this grainy, pixelated video comes nowhere close to capturing the awe of this moment:



To close off the legal proceedings, a local fifth grader led us in our "first act as U.S. citizens," reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the gigantic flag on the stage.



The judge and everyone else on the stage filed out. Then came the long and laborious process of distributing naturalization certificates to each of the 900 individuals. Rows were called individually, and I was one of the last ones seated, making me one of the last ones to get my certificate (well over 30-40 minutes. I didn't mind. I've been waiting for over 20 years for this day). The naturalization certificate is proof that you have actually become a citizen. Obtaining it is basically the whole reason all of us went through this process. It allows us to get passports and expedites other activities required of citizens.

Seeing all the naturalization certificates laid out on tables was awe-inspiring. So much promise contained within these certificates, and so many futures that would be inexorably shaped by them. The table was fate. The table was life.

The table of certificates is actually awe-inspiring. So many futures lying on one surface.

Filing out of the hall, the mood was jubilant everywhere. People hugged their loved ones. Families took countless photos. As I wrote on my Twitter account, it was like leaving a wedding, except 900 people got married...to the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Truly a special day that I'll remember for the rest of my life. Here's me outside the hall with my naturalization certificate:

Me outside the courthouse with my naturalization certificate. It's a beautiful day.

***

Today, I am a citizen of the United States of America.

It's strange for me to say this. I've lived in this country for upwards of two decades as a non-citizen. Yet I have gotten my driver's license here, spoken English since birth, paid my taxes every year. For the past five years I've been a Permanent Resident, eagerly awaiting the requisite time period (5 years) to apply for citizenship. And now that the moment has finally come, the one thing I can safely say I feel is "relief," an emotion I'm sure is shared by hundreds of the others who joined me in taking the Oath today.

Some people have asked me what it means to be a U.S. Citizen, have wondered what's different in my life now. I don't think there's any real way to convey the advantages of being a citizen without talking about what it's like to live in the U.S. without citizenship. I'm guessing many of you reading this probably don't think too often about the fact that you are U.S. citizens. And why would you?

There are many words that I think sum up what citizenship means to a former non-citizen, but the ones I keep returning to are Opportunity and Freedom. What do I mean by those words?

Opportunity means never having to worry about how your job is going to pay you, and never being deprived of your hard-earned pay because you didn't have the right government forms. It means never having to get paid "under the table" (unless you want to). It means never needing to worry about being "eligible" for financial aid, when you apply to college or graduate school. Perhaps, more importantly, Opportunity is having the option to vote in local and national elections, to engage in our collective polity, and to do your part to shape our country and the world. It is the chance to make a difference, to take control, to take ownership of your fate, and the fate of the place that you live. It is self-determination in its purest form.

Freedom is the ability to leave the United States without having any fear of not being able to get back in. It means escaping the fate of my father, whose freshly expired visa prevented him from going back home when his father died in Taiwan many years ago. It means never having to give up amazing, incredible opportunities abroad due to complications with your immigrant status. It means being able to settle down here, to live here, to have a home here, without worrying that one day you'll be asked to leave this place you have contributed so much to. In the end, freedom is, perhaps counter-intuitively, a sense of permanence.

These things that have come second nature to the millions of people who are born here have been unbelievably difficult struggles of blood, sweat, and tears for myself and many of the 900 people that were sworn in today. We have waited endlessly in towering, stuffy government buildings to endure never-ending interviews. We have waded through hundreds of pages of complex government forms. We have been fingerprinted countless times. We have spent thousands of dollars on lawyers and on processing fees to have a chance at enjoying the fruits of American citizenship.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” So I say again:

Today, I am a citizen of the United States of America.

And it means everything.

38 comments :: The Naturalization Oath Ceremony, and What It Means To Be a U.S. Citizen

  1. is this what the day count was all about?

  2. Awesome Dave! Very moving piece. Congratulations!

  3. Congratulations Citizen Chen. You probably value your citizenship more than most people who were born here.

  4. Congratulations! I didn't know they had that kind of ceremony and it's great to see a judge that welcomes "immigrants" (It feels weird calling people who live in the US immigrants, and that word has taken on some bad connotations recently, but it's the only one that comes to mind.) The community I live in (hopefully the exception, but I fear not) doesn't really welcome outsiders - and that's a shame. We're all from many different places but some of us are just fortunate enough to be born here and not have to go through all the paperwork.

  5. Congratulations Dave! Thanks for reminding us (me) of what we often take for granted.

  6. America...FUCK YEAH!

  7. Congrats, man. You seem even happier than my German roommate when he became a citizen, which I didn't think was possible.

    What's next?

  8. Congrats Dave! Great work detailing such an important day in your life. Very inspiring stuff.

  9. Congratulations Dave. I recently became a permanent resident and I know absolutely 100 percent what you mean by "what it means to be a citizen" and those seemingly endless forms. I still, almost every day, get hit by how America really is a place where opportunity and freedom actually means something and that it is, truly, what I believe a democratic society should be - not perfect, sure, but as right as anyone could expect.

    Welcome to being an American - your pledging allegiance video brought me to the edge of crying (but don't tell anyone because I still want to act tough, shhhh).

  10. :)

  11. Congrats David - very cool write-up...!

  12. Great piece David! Beautifully written, while still retaining power. Truly inspiring! Congratulations!

    David Kyle Trowsdale

    March 19, 2010 at 7:55 PM

  13. Congrats David! What an amazing experience, thank you for sharing.

  14. One day. One day...

  15. David, congrats! And keep up the good work in the slashfilmcast. The United States is lucky to have you as an official citizen.

  16. grats!

  17. Mazel Tov Dave!

  18. Excellent write up, Dave. I will be sharing this report with friends, family and students. Great report, you represent your naturalization beautifully. Congratulations on your citizenship.

  19. Sometimes I wish we (citizens by birth) had to go through a process like that. Thanks for this David.

  20. Congrats, Dave. It must be an amazing experience. Keep up the great work at Slashfilmcast.com.

  21. congratulations friend. Hope that i'll get into it soon. Wish me luck.

  22. Very cool, and congratulations. Your write-up helps me to appreciate what I've always taken for granted.

    Thanks for sharing, congratulations-- and thanks for the film and Tobolowsky podcasts!

    Derek Smith
    Bayfield, Colorado

  23. Wow what truly powerful moments you captured here.

  24. Oh, what a beautiful post! I'm glad I stumbled onto it. Accept my late congratulations.

    Reading this made me ask my parents about their naturalization process and ceremony. It's been nearly 20 years since their special day but they still remember it fondly. I'm sure you will too.

  25. A fantastic piece of writing. You remind me how wonderful it is to be an American, and you moved me to tears. Excellent writing, just excellent. Welcome to America, Dave.

  26. Thanks for sharing your experiences, David...and congratulations! A dear Chinese friend of mine received her citizenship today but I was not able to be there. Now I have a better sense of what she went through. I'm very happy for her, for you and for other new Americans.

  27. David, Thanks for sharing the valuable information. Unfortunately, I lost my oath ceremony letter (N-445), what can I do? Do you need to present the letter at Check-in area? Thanks.

    Lucy

    lucyXie email: maihemai@gmail.com

    August 11, 2010 at 12:12 PM

  28. Thanks for sharing your proud moment with us David. My wife will be under-going a similar ceremony this Friday, and we understand your joy and pride in becoming part of this great nation- America.

    We were a little uncertain what to do and expect at this event, and now we know what to bring and to dress appropriately for the "wedding" to the Nation.

    Congulations Dave!

  29. Congratulations David and thank you for your thoughts and photos.

    I will be taking an Oath Ceremony exactly 8 months after you took, Nov. 18 2010.

    Btw., you are one good looking fellow in the pic.!

  30. awesome, im so happy for you. (:

  31. Thats an awesome thing to do and Im sure you will be soo happy here.I love it here and ive only been here for 2 1/2 years! I cant get enough of it. :)

  32. congrats ;0 !!

  33. Congrats! Just had mine and it was a really special day :-)

  34. Loved your piece,congratulations!Thanks for the details,and your photos made me even more excited-and less nervous-,than i already was-i am taking my Oath tomorrow,dec 10th,2010 :)

  35. 5 Star post! This was very moving to read. I will share it with my community. There's a lot to learn here.

  36. Congratulations! I'm about to go through this process and I am quite eager to become a citizen of the USA. It's a big step, so I can relate to how you feel.

    Neil vN

  37. congrats very moving post ty

  38. best piece i've ever read my day soon comeeeeeeeeeeee so excited

Post a Comment