July 8, 2014

July 8, 2014–

It was an emotional day,

It was a significant day,

It was the day that I can proudly say–I am an American!

I remember when my flight flew above the skyscrapers in Chicago on a summer day in 2009, I looked down at the reflecting Lake Michigan and said to myself, “I wasn’t born on this soil but I hope I’ll be buried here.”

That promise has been lingering in the past few years. When I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh, PA, when I was a returning visitor to Saratoga Springs, NY, when I traveled around Denver, New Orleans, Niagara Falls and along the East Coast of America, even after I became a permanent resident in Centreville, VA, I never gave up looking for that feeling of belonging in this country that I had been told since my adolescence.

Everyone has one birthday but I have two. July 8, 2014 is my reborn day, a day to celebrate, a day to remember, a day to mark a milestone in my life.

On that day, like me, there were 376 people across the globe from 75 countries gathering in an auditorium of a local high school, waiting to swear in. We were all dressed up, in our Sunday’s best or not, for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. We were radiant!!!

I was moved that someone I know put on a new dress shirt for the occasion, and that the other one I know volunteered to record the historic moment with my camera. Neither one is a dressy type or keen on photography. In fact, they are on the opposite end. But they were doing something they normally aren’t good at on that day for me. I was deeply touched. I was in the same dress that I wore at my graduation reading–black dress and purple blouse. I even received a heart-shaped brooch of the American flag as a congratulatory present.

After checking in, we to-be-citizens were seated in the front rows while our loved ones were seated in the back. Many of us must be nervous or too exhilarated as the auditorium was quiet for a while. So quiet that a Homeland Security officer had to tell jokes to warm up the atmosphere.

“All your current and expired green cards and travel documents are mine,” she said half-jokingly. “You’ll get something much better today! So please raise up your hands if you haven’t turned them in. I’m coming to collect them.”

According to one of the officers, the ceremony was scheduled to start at 2PM. But since we arrived and checked in smoothly, it started at least 30 minutes early. We were called by our birth countries. Those who were called remained standing while the audience among us or in the back cheered and shouted for us at the top of their lungs.

Coming from a country with the world’s largest population, I always want to be a minority in a community. Perhaps because of this thought, I had no fear to study in a classroom that I was the only Chinese/alien. I couldn’t wait to move to Maine after graduation for a nearly seclusive life. On July 8, 2014, I was among the minority, too, as Chinese candidates weren’t a large crowd, compared to the Ethiopians or the Brazilian, for instance. I was surrounded with people mostly with dark skin. The woman next to me was from Cameroon.

Having our right hand raised, we were led to say the oath of allegiance: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

For the first time, I sang along the U.S. anthem. For the first time, I said along the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. And for the first time, I could proudly announce to the world that the soil I am standing is my country.

This feeling of acceptance and recognition is so overwhelming that I was speechless and probably expressionless for a long time. Until the big screen plays the video of  “I’m Proud To Be American,” some of us, like me, burst into tears. The refrain goes like this: “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me….” I say we cannot choose where to be born but as an American we can choose to live for freedom.

The ceremony ended on an inspiring speech made by that cheerful officer. She said, after we become the American citizens, we shall not forget where we were from. Our culture, our background, our food will contribute to the best of this country. Our success with our knowledge about our birth countries helps to make America successful. We should make full use of ourselves to do good for this country and for the world.

Her words echo with my professor’s in graduate school. I shall not loose my Chineseness even though I am American and even though my English is probably better and better day by day. Isn’t this the value of SELF?

I celebrated my reborn day with a lobster dinner. Yum!!! I can’t believe I am in America, let alone believing that I am an American!

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