How would you score on the U.S. Citizenship test? Here are a few sample questions:
- What is the “rule of law”?
- If the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
- We elect a senator for how many years?
- What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?
- Name your U.S. Representative
How did you do? *(Answers at the bottom.) To become a U.S. citizen, you can miss one, but you can’t miss four questions out of ten. Recently, I took the exam that includes ten questions drawn randomly from one hundred civics questions, a writing and reading test, an oral English interview, and an oath.
I want to vote, sit on a jury, and not be at risk of losing my Green Card if I leave the country for more than a few months (to immerse our children in another culture, for example). Born in Toronto, I am proudly Canadian. But I fell in love with an American and feel privileged to call Colorado home. Our children were born in the United States, and they also have Canadian citizenship. I have lived and worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for over twenty years. It’s time to make the obvious official.
It’s a strange time to want to become a U.S. citizen. There is the beauty of the United States with its diversity of people, mountains, oceans, rivers and red rock canyons, and there is also the pain. The air feels thick with fear. Violent crimes against immigrants, muslim, black, and gay people are at an all-time high. American popularity abroad is at an all-time low. Eighteen of twenty-one cabinet members are white men. Climate Change sits at the bottom of the administration’s priority list. Wall-building sits on top.
Studying for the citizenship test helps me to find perspective and take the long view. I cozy up at night with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. I am struck by how beautiful and relevant these documents are right now. We the people. Our administration has a responsibility to lead, but if I am reading the Constitution right, the President works for us. Citizens have a responsibility to lead, too. The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.
One of my favorite moments in these historical texts comes from President Lincoln in a speech he gave to congress in 1862. He asks Americans over and over, “Can we do better?” “Yes!” I want to shout back.
Then Lincoln slaps me awake by ending with these words, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Lincoln knew that in order for this experiment of democracy to work, we all have to dedicate ourselves tirelessly to it and dig deep to find our best selves. When he uses the words, “We must disenthrall ourselves,” it’s as if he is saying, “Get over yourself! Reach higher (and across partisan lines)! Use your imagination and act!”
I want to dedicate myself to making things better in this country that gives me so much. I don’t want to curl up like an armadillo and hide. I don’t want to drive across the border, screaming. Instead, I want to do what I know how to do: roll up my sleeves and get to work in the places where I can make a difference. I have a responsibility to stay engaged (not addicted to headlines…that’s different) to keep moving this experiment of a government of the people, by the people, for the people forwards.
The day of my U.S. Citizenship exam, I drive to Denver and sit in the waiting room, near a family from Pakistan. The Pakistani woman tells me she has been studying, “Lots, lots!” I smile and burst out the name “Malala!” as if to say, “Your countrywoman is my hero,” referring to Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014. But it comes out like I am calling her Malala, as if all women from Pakistan are named Malala. I am immediately embarrassed. She is generous and smiles back. “Malala is good. Studying is good. We are women working for goodness,” She says. “Yes,” I say quietly. Exactly.
The final step is the oath. I consider gaining U.S. Citizenship like a wedding ceremony in which I am walked down the aisle by my Canadian culture and heritage, in order to wed American privileges and responsibilities. But I still feel Canadian. Other times, I feel like I live in a doorway between two rooms.** I wonder, Aren’t we all a patchwork of different cultures past and present? Like it or not, we are bound to one another as global citizens.
What if there were an oath to become a global citizen? We could all raise our right hands and say, “I swear that I will bear true allegiance to the world, the planet on which we live. I promise to work towards peace, to sustain a balanced environment, and to defend human rights. As a Global Citizen, I remain faithful to our shared responsibilities to one another and to the land.”
To the U.S. Citizenship oath ceremony, I am warned to wear “formal attire.” I wear a nice, loose dress, and heels. Under my dress, I am in a Statue of Liberty costume. Under Lady Liberty, I wear a Wonder Woman outfit. I decide that if I am going to do this, I am going to do this wearing the version of America that I love. The room is crowded with people of all different skin tones, in dresses and suits, speaking nervously in a chorus of languages. There are fifty people in the room from twenty-five different countries. I pause to take it in. It’s a beautiful sight, really. I ask the supervisor if it is alright to say the oath as Lady Liberty. He laughs as I show him my outfit, and says, “Absolutely.”
Then I stand, raise my right hand, and commit. I say the words of the oath, but I am thinking, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I am dedicated to being a true citizen of the world; I am a woman working for goodness.
*Answers: U.S. Civics Questions. 1. No one is above the law, not even the government or the President 2.The Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan 3. Six years 4. Freedom of speech, religion, assembly, press, & to petition the government 5. Depends on your state & district, ours is Jared Polis.
**the first line of “Sonrisas,” a poem by Pat Mora, introduced to me by my friend, Marilee Lin