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.
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.
Then we entered the auditorium, where we waited for everyone else to finish the check in process and awaited the presiding judge's arrival.
While I was waiting, I interviewed a fellow Oath-taker, Gustavo:
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.
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:
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.