Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Becoming an American Citizen

After living in this country for twenty-five years, I have finally become an American citizen. It has been a long journey and I am happy to have finally landed. But the journey has been a complex one, not just administratively, but psychologically and intellectually. Your country is more than just where you live, and a legal relationship to a government. It's tied closely to who you are, more closely than you realize until you leave it.

For many of my years of alien wandering I was on various non-immigrant visas: student visas, temporary work visas, a religious worker visa. It was only once I married an American (a woman I would have married even if doing so would have forever barred me from citizenship) that I was able to get an internationally coveted “green card” three years later. After 9/11, many ex-pat Canadians applied for citizenship. The events of that day moved them to step forward and embrace what they suddenly could see was precious them, and yet which they were taking for granted. ABC anchor Peter Jennings and White House speech writer David Frum were two of these. As for me, my green card was still in process when the twin towers fell. Three months later, I was sitting in the INS waiting room in Des Moines waiting for my green card interview. The TV monitor was screening the newly released video of Osama bin Laden rejoicing as he watched his hellish plans unfold on television. As he was striking a stinging blow against this country, I was deepening in my commitment to it, legally and emotionally.

My affection and high respect for America went much further back than 9/11, back to my first entry into the country in 1985. Though originally I came here not to stay but for doctoral studies in political philosophy, I was aware from the start that this was no ordinary country. I remember arriving in Boston, riding the T along Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton, thinking, “Wow. This is where it all happened. These are the people who transformed the world.” Occasionally, an American classmate would ask me why a Canadian would want to study American government. I would ask them in turn why a Gaul would want to study politics in Rome, or a why a Dane would cross the channel to study British government. The United States is one of the great civilizations of the world, and is the great guarantor and hope of liberty in the world, over against the constant encroachment of tyranny (Iran, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, etc). I have always appreciated this, even as an undergraduate in Toronto.

A Canadian's migration south to America is only partly a matter of border crossing. Despite the similarity of the two countries, leaving the one for the other with full-hearted commitment requires several significant changes of orientation.

A wake up moment came in perhaps 1994 when I was returning to the States after a Christmas or summer visit with my parents. At this point, I had my Ph.D. and was teaching at a college south of Boston. The border guard asked me the usual question: "Where do you live?" I puzzled, and explained my Canadian address--Ottawa, where my parents lived--and my Massachusetts job and address. (As a Canadian, I must have an address in Canada, right?) He matter-of-factly responded that people usually "live" where they work. I was quite struck by that. I thought, "Oh my! It's true. I live in the United States. I don't live in Canada anymore. The United States is my home." I realized that I was no longer a Canadian who was doing stuff in the United States. I was functioning like an American who occasionally visited family in Canada. That is a jarring realization.

I also found that I was thinking less and less like a Canadian. When I first arrived at Boston College for graduate studies, I did not believe in rights, or at least not with an American-style fixation on their fundamental importance. I certainly saw no grounds for gun rights. It's hard to find a Canadian who does. And even property rights I thought should be suspended if the government believes the public good requires it. I slowly came around, however. It was my study of the American founding and of philosophers like John Locke that convinced me. I saw that the principles on which America is founded support liberty and human dignity. I came eventually even to see how Christian those principles are, and that they are not just pleasing, but also true.

Despite my deeply patriotic, spirit of '76, immigrant's love for this country, there is a Canadian heritage in me that is unshakable and good, and not just the way I say "out" and "about." There's my old world conservative temperament, and my reflexive disposition to obey rules. If more people had both of those qualities it would be a better world (I humbly suggest). And of course, like all Canadians, I'm nice. There is a sense in which I will always be Canadian in the same way that Mel Gibson will always be Australian. As a friend in high school told me when I was going through an infatuation with all things Greek, "You can't change your ethnic origin." It sort of applies. The Canadian marrow in my bones is a tie to Canada that will never loosen, much less break, and of course I am very happy with that too.

1 comment:

Nolanimrod said...

Welcome. I was born here and so were my parents. Three of four grandparents were immigrants.

It didn't take so long to be a citizen then. My paternal grandfather was a hockey bum from Ontario. That was when hockey was like barnstorming. You'd find a field, sell tickets, have a game. He either didn't find a game or blew his money in St. Paul. One of the guys told him the owner of Hamm's Brewery was a soft touch for hockey players so he went to "put the touch" to him. Hamm said he wouldn't give him any money but he would give him a job and that's where he stayed. He was pretty good with numbers and ended up as treasurer of the corporation.

So welcome aboard. Now you're here for life so long as you stay out of the olive oil business.

Funniest citizenship story I ever heard involved one Steinberg who was a cartoonist for The New Yorker back in the Harold Ross days. Steinberg was a Cuban and there was some problem which was going to involve his leaving the country. Ross wasn't about to lose a good cartoonist and knew the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, so he called him. Then, just before Steinberg would have had to leave, he was sworn in as a Naval Second Lieutenant and following that he took the citizenship oath.