Thursday, January 16, 2003

Two months ago I became an American citizen in a moving ceremony and thus participating in a 200 plus year experiment in freedom and the pursuit of liberty and happiness. A close friend Suku wrote this article when he witnessed his brother go through the ceremony earlier.

On Becoming American
Sukumar Ramanathan

Oct 24th, 1996



There are fifteen hundred people crowding the Masonic Auditorium on California Street in San Francisco this autumn afternoon, about to become freshly minted citizens. There were eleven hundred others on this morning in late 1996, eleven hundred who raised their right hands and said seven sentences and just like that, a breath of air, went from being Cambodian and Irish and Ethiopian to becoming American.

I am not yet one of the fifteen hundred. Instead, I sit with my sister-in-law and her mother as my brother, the younger of the two Ramanathan boys, embarks on the momentous journey. Around us are people from every corner of the world: a shy Vietnamese couple who can't seem to stop beaming; a Russian grandmother who stumbles as she walks towards her seat; a strong Haitian man, deep ebony skin, in a fine tan suit; a large Mexican family, four children, mother in a bright floral dress. There are Poles and Uzbeks and Chinese here who have been imagining this day all their lives. And between themselves the people speak urgently, in Farsi and Spanish and Czech, admonishing their children and posing for group photographs and asking for advice on filling out the voter registration form. The best Sunday suits are on display here. Brightly shined shoes and crisply ironed sleeves, and skirts in every color you can imagine.

For many, this is the day of days, as important to them as the day they graduated school or uttered their vows of marriage. This is the culmination of years of sacrifice and effort, of the pain of leaving behind their home and family, of struggling in a new land where language and culture are perplexing, of endless lines in endless consulates with plastic pouches full of forms that say I-94, H-1, J-1, Resident Alien. After this day, they will have the same blue passport as everybody else. They will fill out the same tax forms as their neighbors and be able to vote for the same candidates. There is so much joy and hope and optimism in this auditorium that it makes me blink back tears.

The United States awes me in its ability to fashion an American out of any person that it takes in. I am still at a loss when asked to picture a typical American. The term encompasses for me the Lebanese owner whose gyro shop I haunted in Chapel Hill, the Russian scientist that I assisted at Kodak Labs, the Indian that I worked for in marketing at Sun Microsystems, and the Costa Rican who runs the cash register at my cafeteria. But Rasoul wasn't Lebanese, he was American. He collected vintage Fords and had pictures of JFK on his wall. Sergei could talk for hours about the music of Leonard Bernstein. Deepak is more fluent in the American idiom than his native Tamil. And Jader served in the US Special Forces in Panama for three years. In facial features, accent and heritage, not one of them should be American. But each of them, in his own unique fashion, is.

I can imagine a Chinese citizen. He looks Chinese. And a French citizen is French from her language to her sense of style. But American? I have no idea. What connects Arnold Schwarzenegger to Professor Chandrasekhar? What is common between Monica Seles and Amy Tan? Mario Cuomo and Wayne Huizenga? What is it about this singular country that gives it the ability to take Jewish prisoners of conscience and Taiwanese students,Swiss nannies and Vietnamese boat people, Australian tycoons and Cuban balseras, and out of this jumbled polyglot stew, fashion human beings that you instantly recognize as American?

America is the only country I know of that defines it's citizenry not by race or creed but as the embodiment of an idea. The idea of the primacy of the individual and of the attendant rights and responsibilities. Try arguing for equality in Malaysia if you aren't Moslem. Or publishing a newsletter of ideas in Singapore if those ideas happen to be at odds with those of the government. It is then that you truly appreciate the American experiment.

I once spent an entire morning in Washington in the museum that houses the Declaration of Independence. There is something that is both shocking and inspirational about a document that dares to hold some truths to be self-evident. About a charter that believes that one of the inalienable rights of a human being is the pursuit of happiness. That contains instructions for its own destruction should it fail to meet its goals.

The other document that I hold in reverence is the U.S Constitution. Imagine. A group of contentious politicians gathered more than two hundred years ago on a steamy Philadelphia summer to draft a mission statement for the ages. This short document has since guided the affairs of over two hundred million people over two centuries, through a Civil War that almost rent the Union, through a catastrophic global economic depression, through two World Wars, the assassination of four heads of state and the resignation of one. And it has had to be amended a grand total of only twenty-six times.

I see a country based on ideals, not on circumstance of birth or religion. This is the siren call that has brought in Irish potato farmers and Chinese railroad workers, Italian bakers and German scientists, Hungarian code-breakers and Cambodian grocers, Indian engineers and Salvadoran restarauteurs. It doesn't matter where you came from or what you came with. What are you capable of becoming? I know of no other country that gives you such a fair shake.

This spring, I would sometimes hear the speeches of Pat Buchanan on my car radio, and fume silently. Not because I would be one of the aliens that he directs his tirades at but because he chooses to ignore the history of this country. He was schooled at Gonzaga High and studied at the finest institutions of higher education that the U.S has to offer. Is this what the Jesuit priests taught in his classroom? Where is his optimism, his imagination?

But there is strength even in that conflict of ideas. Buchanan is voicing his opinion, much different from mine. Both of us are exercising a guaranteed right. I believe as strongly in diversity as he thinks that the current rate of immigration will lead to economic catastrophe. It is a wondrous nation indeed that allows us both our forum, just as it grants the freedom of public opinion to Howard Stern, Ellen Goodman, David Dukes, the Reverend Al Sharpton or the Freemen.

We all rise to our feet. The San Mateo High School Honor Guard marches in and presents the colors. On either side of the judge, there slowly unfurls the Stars and Stripes and the flag of the California Republic. Mohammed Samini, a lawyer from Iran, leads the oath of allegiance in a tremulous voice. Fifteeen hundred voices resonate with his. The judge smiles and says, "Welcome, citizens of America". The clapping that follows rises in waves to the roof.

As the throng leaves the auditorium, many more family members and friends descend to greet the new citizens with hugs. Everyone seems to be smiling. Camcorders record every movement and the continuous flash of cameras is dizzying. We pose self-consciously, taking photographs of each other to commemorate this precious moment. Then we ask others to take pictures of us all.

We scatter outside onto the shiny mosaic floor of the foyer, among us the newest ensigns of a two hundred and twenty year old experiment in governance.

Sean O'Casey.
Olga Rachevsky.
Thanh Vo.
Ramon Guittirez.
Jaikumar Ramanathan.
*-*-*

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