On this joyous day in New York, United States of America, I woke up to a distinct memory of the day I became naturalized. Two weeks after Bush wiggled his way into the second term, I became an American citizen.
It was a blood-curdling cold November day, 2004. I walk out of the subway and make my way towards Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan for my scheduled citizenship interview. An unusual crowd of people mills around the surrounding streets. At first I think it’s a line for food stamps, or Gap is having a sale. Yet a bewildered look on people’s faces seems to tell a different story.
I walk on, still contemplating whether I should just turn around, sit on the train going back to Brooklyn and make peace with having just one passport. Then I think of all the visa sections of all the embassies and consulates I’d have to visit from now on. I think of the day when I may decide to leave the States and, who knows, maybe lose my green card to coming back. So I walk on, reluctant, still.
I turn the corner, and all of a sudden there I am, in a sea of people standing in disjointed clusters across from Federal Plaza. Everyone is chatting in different languages, pacing around to keep warm, talking on their cell phones…. There’s a look of panic and confusion on most faces, and a multitude of questions.
I approach a man with a parka jacket, to ask about the commotion. “The entire building has been evacuated,” he says, “Nobody knows what’s going on. We’re told to stand on this side of the street until they call us.” My heart sinks. The long-awaited citizenship interview is in fifteen minutes! I haven’t dressed warm enough. On other numerous trips to the INS office, I knew I’d wait for hours but this time I was told a special entrance for citizenship applicants allows us to just slide in. Yeah, right.
So there I am, having foolishly expected VIP (or at least semi-human) treatment for the first time in my seven years of American life, standing in the street, with no gloves, scarf or seven layers of clothing, waiting… Waiting… Waiting… I comfort myself that I’m not alone. Hundreds of people surround me, from every corner of the globe.
Suddenly, everyone storms across the street toward the INS building, disregarding traffic and charging for the entrance. I am carried by the crowd, reduced to pushing and shoving, as guards shout garbled somethings into a megaphone.
A man is running around wildly, screaming: “Sofia, donde estas?”. Two women behind me start arguing over which one was first in line. As if there’s a line… There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason or any order to our actions, this exasperated herd.
All of a sudden, a guard projects his voice somewhat more clearly. He instructs all those who were in the building before the evacuation to pull out their green tickets, and to come in first. The lucky ones who retained their admission stubs run to the front. The rest of us remain waiting. Somebody mentions another entrance for those who haven’t yet been inside the building that morning. Confused, I push up to the guard and ask where I should stand. He tells me to go to the other entrance, for “regular people”. I tell him I have my citizenship interview. “Stay in this line, in that case,” he brusquely responds. I still see no line.
There is more serious pushing and shoving. An old wrinkled woman looks like she’s about to faint. There are more muffled voices over the megaphone. A motherly Pakistani lady covers my cold stiff hands with her scarf and rubs them back to life. A sightseeing tour bus drives past, with bundled-up tourists at the top looking down at us, taking pictures.
Every nation under the sun stands in the street, close to hypothermia, and just a few steps away from their citizenship. Every language is spoken in whispers or screams. Nobody is told anything. Nobody knows what to do. We all just wait.
It takes several hours for lines to finally form, and for everyone to get back inside the building. When I finally get to the citizenship waiting room, I am just happy to be warm again. Two more hours go by before they call my name. I spend them talking to a charming Bangladeshi man and smiling at his friend, who’s about to get interviewed and speaks no English. Behind me, an eager Phillippino father is testing his 18-year-old son’s knowledge of civics history, over and over again.
They finally call my name, and I go in for the dreaded interview. The questions are basic – what do you do, where have you traveled… The woman asks me to write down “I write articles for a living” to test my knowledge of written English. I answer all the civics history questions correctly, and get my date for the oath ceremony.
A couple of weeks later, I pledged allegiance to the flag in the Brooklyn courthouse, wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt under my respectable-looking clothes. I felt far from proud to be an American. I rather felt almost ashamed to be there, swearing to an idea I didn’t support, to a president I abhorred, and a political and social concept that sounded great in theory but failed miserably in practice.
Yesterday, four years later, on November 4, 2008, I cast my vote for America’s first global president. Obama’s landslide victory made me feel like I belong to this country, for the first time. It made me feel proud to be here, now, and part of history.