A few weeks ago I stood in a room in Salt Lake City with 25 people from a dozen nations and said the pledge of allegiance. Following that, an officer of the Department of Homeland Security pronounced us citizens of the United States.
Up to that point I’d lived in the US for 32 years as a resident alien, an Australian with “Green Card” status. Of course, I still have an accent that people around here detect as being variously from Boston, Britain, New Zealand or Australia, and I still have my heritage in the southern hemisphere, a place where (I can verify because I am often asked) the toilet water does indeed flush in the opposite direction.
But now when I visit my daughter’s classroom at HMK and the kids recite their pledge to the flag, I can join in with sincerity.
As the guy from Homeland Security said at the beginning of the ceremony, with the exception of the Indian Nations who were already here when settlers (or invaders, depending on your viewpoint) first arrived from Europe, America is a nation of immigrants. Everyone’s origins stem from offshore.
The folks being naturalized along with me hailed from Asia, Africa, South America, Canada, Europe, and tiny islands of the Pacific, and they ranged in age from a teenage Chinese hiptser to a frail Russian babushka. We were a colorful bunch with a tapestry of skin tones and racial features.
And now we were as officially American as that blond, white cowboy riding the range in Wyoming. Our citizenship documents attested to that. I kid you not, since that ceremony I feel closer to this country in almost every way, materially and abstract, despite having lived here already for over three decades.
As a parting gesture to the ceremony that day, the Homeland Security officer encouraged us to exercise our new right to vote, and I feel certain that everyone in that room has done so by now. In many senses, the right to vote is the most obvious privilege of being a freshly minted US citizen, because it’s the most obvious lack for the non-citizen resident. In between my penning this column and the printing of this newspaper, the outcome of this election has been settled. I bet we are all glad to see the end of it.
I know I am. Folks outside of America regard the contest between the parties and those who vie for the presidency as a weirdly divisive national ritual that regularly pulls America apart and then tries to put it back together, a multi-billion-dollar circus maximus of polarization, televised insults and questionable truthiness. And then, one morning we wake up and it’s all over and life goes on.
During my Green Card years I sometimes found myself, in conversation, defending America to Americans. Sometimes I’d hear the fatalistic criticisms (which are often justified, and myriad) and I’d counter that the nucleus of America is a pretty good place from which to start a country, so long as the ideals of the Constitution remain the blueprint.
Some of my friends have heard me compare the origin of modern Australia in the late 1700s (a grim start as a dumping ground for British convicts, where the cat o’ nine tails was the rule of law), with the same period in America, when the British army was being evicted from these shores, the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and, a bit later, when the brilliant and revolutionary ideas of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights came to be.
But that probably sounds like pie-in-the-sky eggheadism in an era when we are all worried about the economy, jobs, the near-impossibility of affording health care, and the proliferation of those drilling rigs that are mushrooming all over Grand County and which I do not believe for one second will have no effect on our drinking water.
I’m not sure what to do about those things. And I’m not sure if casting that vote the other day will change my life, or my daughter’s life, one way or another. But now that I have voted and had my say, I feel better for it, and I feel more connected to the dirt under my feet.