I wrote this piece a couple of years ago for the WSJ, but these same thoughts have been rattling around my head recently:
Why I Chose the Red White and Blue
Growing up British, I thought that I knew everything about national self-loathing. We were reared in the shadows of long-gone might, taught that we were mere dormice scuffling in the footsteps of imperial giants. To dull the pain, we administered heavy doses of sarcasm, self-effacement and “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
But then I moved to the U.S., and over my decade here, I have realized that when it comes to the rhetoric of self-flagellation, as in so much else, we Europeans are small time. The U.S. government, we hear, is no longer checked and balanced but broken. Banks and insurance companies are plundering the nation’s treasure. Bridges are crumbling, children aren’t being educated, and that thudding sound is 1.3 billion Chinese sitting down to eat America’s lunch. For all this country’s glories, its morale in recent years has felt low.
So a couple of months ago I did my bit to buck the gloom: I became a U.S. citizen.
I had been told that the 2013 model of U.S. citizenship was the lemon on the international lot. The Internal Revenue Service would have its claws into me for life. The jihadists would mark me as a demon of the Great Satan. Canada and Australia were more welcoming. Europe has a stronger social safety net. Asia has more economic opportunities. What was I thinking?
For one thing, after I watched the Tom Hanks film “Captain Phillips” with my 10-year-old son, he made an excellent point: If ever I were kidnapped by Somali pirates, I would wish I were a U.S. citizen so that Navy SEALs could come to my rescue.
But it also felt like time. For the past decade, I have lived happily in the U.S. while retaining my British citizenship. My wife is a natural-born U.S. citizen, as are my two sons. I have paid taxes but lacked the right to vote. This didn’t bother me at first, but it has chafed more as my financial and emotional investment in the U.S. has grown.
I could simply have renewed my green card. But it no longer seemed enough, either in terms of rights or responsibilities. I was receiving the privilege of living here on the cheap.
Forty-three years ago, my mother’s parents came to the U.S. from Burma. Leaving behind all they owned and a daughter who would marry an Englishman, they started afresh in Virginia. My own naturalization lacked such drama: just a $600 filing fee, a set of forms, a fingerprint scan, an interview to test my English, a civics quiz and an oath.
On a Friday in November, I drove to the Richard C. Lee Courthouse in New Haven, the Areopagus of central Connecticut. My wife took the day off work, and our sons left school to watch me swear allegiance (with the promise of Shake Shack burgers to celebrate afterward).
The courtroom was grand but shabby in that government way, with marble and oak panels illuminated by dusty lights. We huddled masses, 30 strong, were young and old, from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe, each here for our own reasons. Conducting our ceremony was an 89-year-old federal judge, Ellen Bree Burns, and an official from the Department of Homeland Security wearing a Stars and Stripes necktie.
Most times, said Judge Burns, when people leave her courtroom, half are happy, half unhappy. But making new citizens was a moment of unadulterated joy. She urged us to vote and to preserve whatever culture and heritage we had brought with us. And she thanked us for letting her be the judge who swore us in.
We received our certificates of naturalization and a yellow envelope marked “The White House.” In it was a “Dear Fellow American” letter from President Obama. “Since our founding, generations of immigrants have come to this country full of hope for a brighter future, and they have made sacrifices in order to pass that legacy on to their children and grandchildren,” he wrote. “This is the price and the promise of citizenship. You are now part of this precious history, and you serve as an inspiration to those who will come after you.”
The U.S. does this language so well. It is an antidote to cynicism. It revealed to me what a frail and incomplete thing it had been to live here as an observer rather than a full participant in civic life. I wish that those Americans who trash their country for its failings or doubt the value of their citizenship could give it up and reapply for it, just to see with fresh eyes what an astonishing gift it still is.