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Yankee Doodle dawdler


© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001

This will be my first Fourth of July as an American citizen.

Having spent 20 other Independence Days here, it probably was about time I traded in my green card -- the one identifying me in capitals as a RESIDENT ALIEN -- and became a citizen.

I flew into Miami once after a trip to South America, and the man at the passport desk looked at my green card, saw how long I had been living in America and said, without any effort at humor, "Time for you to make up your mind."

But there's more to citizenship than simply sending in an application and $250. There are a couple of tests to pass, for a start.

One is the English test.

I grew up in New Zealand -- an English-speaking country, by most measures -- and have lived in the United States since 1980, but that was not enough for the INS. Twenty years' residence would have got me an exemption from the English test, but as an INS officer pointed out, I had lived in America for only 19 years and 10 months when I filed my application.

So, on a Wednesday morning in April, with a sheet of paper before me and pen in hand, I waited to find out from an INS officer how I would demonstrate my competency in English.

I was to write down, the officer said, a sentence she would dictate.

I braced myself for something of the grandeur of "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable. . . ."

I got this: "I want to be an American citizen."

And that's what I, an editor for the St. Petersburg Times for 21 years, then printed out.

The other test was more substantial. Page 37 of the INS booklet A Guide to Naturalization contains this ominous sentence: "You will also be given a civics test (to test your knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government)."

This is the test most Americans seem to know about, the one in which people who want to be Americans are asked questions that most Americans probably can't answer.

My fellow Americans, I fear this is true.

Ninety-six sample questions are included in the INS guide.

Question 6: "What do the stripes on the flag represent?"

Question 40: "What were the 13 original states?"

Question 72: "Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights."

This is not multiple choice. And there is no mention of being able to phone a friend.

My civics test began with a couple of softballs. Why did the Pilgrims come to America? What is a change to the Constitution called?

Then the INS officer zeroed in with this one: "How many amendments to the Constitution are there?"

I recalled Al Haig making a fool of himself over the 25th Amendment when President Ronald Reagan was shot, but that was the only real clue I could summon up.

So I guessed. "Twenty-eight."


Was it one wrong answer and you're back to Auckland? I barely had time to wonder before the next question came. "Who was the principal author of the Constitution?"

Judging by the answers I have heard since from acquaintances, my response will come as a revelation to many Americans: "Jefferson."

I got the next four questions right, apparently enough for a passing grade.

But then again, for all the talk about the toughness of this test, I have never heard of anyone failing it.

* * *

Of course, everyone asks me why I waited so long to become a citizen.

I struggle to give a tidy answer. My ambivalence shows.

It didn't take me long to make up my mind in Canada. Six years after immigrating to Canada from New Zealand, in 1977, I took out Canadian citizenship (while retaining my New Zealand citizenship).

Standing in a small office in Toronto, I was led through the pledge of allegiance by a young woman who had been born in South Africa. Halfway through it, I began to smile at the dull solemnity of the language. She smiled, too, started to laugh, said we didn't really need to go all the way through the pledge and told me I could go. I would be mailed my certificate of citizenship in a few days, she said.

It was the informality of such moments that endeared Canada and Canadians to me.

Becoming an American seemed a much more momentous step, especially after growing up in a country of only 3-million people.

I got an unsettling reminder of the sweep of America's coattails on my first trip back to New Zealand after 20 years away, in 1992. I was stunned to see the invasion of things American, from McDonald's to New York Yankees caps. Even the language was changing: Los Angeles was no longer Los Ange-e-LEES; now it was "L.A."

Every second male teenager was wearing a Michael Jordan shirt. Basketball wasn't even a boys' sport when I was in school; it was something girls played, on paved outdoor courts, in pinafores and blouses and long black stockings.

New Zealand's singular culture, with roots in Europe and Polynesia, was being swallowed up.

If I became a U.S. citizen, would I have allowed myself to be consumed, too?

But the heart of my ambivalence lay elsewhere.

I recall the last time I was flying back to the States from New Zealand. As I watched the digital clock on the Air New Zealand jumbo jet count down the hours before arrival in Los Angeles, I dealt with the usual flood of thoughts that come with visiting my homeland.

I had left New Zealand when I was 21. I had lived for nearly 10 years in Canada, and now 20 years in the U.S.

High over the Pacific, thousands of miles from land, I looked out of the window into the night's absolute blackness and realized this was my true point of existence, at least in emotional terms: between countries, rather than in one or the other.

Could I truly commit myself to one country?

In time, I came to recognize there was another way to frame that question: Did I wish to remain in the limbo of the resident alien, an American in nearly every sense but without some rights, such as voting?

A subtle change in naturalization procedures gave me the final nudge. In recent years, immigrants like me have watched America seemingly choose to look the other way as many new citizens retain citizenship of other nations. The days of having to get official approval for dual citizenship -- or triple citizenship, even -- are slipping away, to be replaced by something undefined but far more humane.

I won't use my New Zealand passport much, I know, and perhaps my Canadian one never again. But there is an inestimable comfort in hanging on to them, a recognition of enduring emotional ties.

Don't worry, I will take to the ramparts if the United States is threatened. The boys high school I went to in New Zealand had compulsory military training, and I was pretty good with a Bren gun.

* * *

On the morning of Friday, May 4, after declaring on a form that in the month since the English and civics tests I had not been arrested for soliciting a prostitute, had not become a habitual drunkard or drug trafficker or polygamist, and had not joined in any plot to overthrow the government of the United States, I became an American citizen.

Three hundred other people who had spent an equally uneventful month joined me at the Tampa Convention Center.

We swore the oath of allegiance, reciting words that could have been stirring only to the lawyers who wrote them: "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 . . ."

The oath went on for another 104 words, all contained in one sentence.

Our program promised we would hear a "Patriotic Anthem." It turned out to be a recording of country singer Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA, the only anthem I know that proclaims, "There ain't no doubt I love this land."

The guest speaker for the ceremony was a college professor, who was born in Ethiopia and blinded while he was an infant. He spoke about the new chapter in our lives on which we had embarked. We all had grown up in fear, he said, but now we were free.

The ceremony ended on a surprisingly flat note. Having sat through my eldest son's interminable high school graduation, I knew I lived in a country that could make a fuss about things of even questionable significance. Surely, we new citizens at the least would walk across the stage one by one and be handed our certificates of citizenship, perhaps by the professor from Ethiopia.

There was no grand climax. Instead, we were formed into five lines and made our way to a desk where we were given our certificates without a shake of the hand or even a "Congratulations, Mr. Green."

I handed over my green card and went back to work.

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