After weeks of studying and photocopying documents, my husband has passed his U.S. Citizenship test. The six paltry questions the USCIS agent asked him (compared to the 100 he’s been studying from a booklet and a fabulous online tutorial from the Smithsonian) were a breeze:
What is the supreme law of the land?
What is the capital of your state?
What is an amendment?
Who did the United States fight during World War II?
To what do you show loyalty when you say the Pledge of Allegiance?
In fact, the only interview question that threw him for a loop was a procedural one: “Are you planning to change your name?” Flustered, he responded very soberly: “Not at this time.” I asked him after the interview if that meant he might change his name in the future. He just rolled his eyes at me. We assume this question is asked of everyone but aimed at immigrant women who might take their American husband’s last name but have not yet done so officially, or at people who feel that being American requires a new name. So much for Ellis Island.
After the interview, at the US Immigration Services building in lower Manhattan, we walked around through the sun and snow and passed a crew filming scenes for Law & Order SVU (which in my house is always called Law & Order SUV). We even caught a glimpse of the star, Mariska Hargitay, sitting on a director’s-style chair while an assistant covered her in a thick down jacket like a blanket. (For the record, she seemed shorter in person but seemed chipper despite the cold and the early hour). In addition to the citizenship test, I feel like we’ve passed some kind of New York rite-of-passage. Live here long enough and eventually you will see people filming Law & Order.
From there, we turned the corner to the Brooklyn Bridge and decided on a patriotic whim to walk across it. At first, we aimed just for the first arch, which actually takes a bit of time to reach. I’d made it to this point several times as a tourist or with tourist friends, but today my husband looked at me and said: “Let’s walk the whole way. What do you say? We can take the subway back from Brooklyn.”
The sun was peaking delicately through soft clouds, hitting the Freedom Tower and S.’s favorite spiral skyscraper just so. A layer of soft, fresh snow decorated the clay-brown metal suspensions of the bridge but the wooden pedestrian walkway had been conveniently cleared of snow. We were stopped twice on our trip across the bridge to take photos of tourists: on the Manhattan side, a Spanish-speaking couple. On the Brooklyn side, a group of French-speaking friends. Neither S. nor I spoke French to them. I could tell they were French mostly from the buttons on their digital camera and words they exchanged amongst themselves as they got into their poses. We smiled and whispered to ourselves as we left them “Ils sont français!”
Halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty comes into view, just past Governor’s Island. She’s small but distinct from there, dwarfed by the skyline of Lower Manhattan and the paraphernalia of shipping and docks. But S. looked at her with a half-smile as if greeting a friend. One of the questions he studied but that was not asked was “Where is the Statue of Liberty?” Correct answers included: New York, New York Harbor, and (much to our dismay) New Jersey. As corny as many of the civics questions were and as unsettling as any direct interaction with government bureaucracy and codified values can make me feel, we both felt like the Statue was welcoming my husband.
“That’s for you,” I whispered. “She’s welcoming you like all the immigrants. Like my great-grandparents.”
I offered the only line of Emma Lazarus’s inscription that I can remember:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
My husband smiled and hugged me tight through our winter coats. “Wow,” he said, “That means something.”
I could tell that it did, but what I love about that moment and S.’s comment is that it was understated. It didn’t feel forced or cliché or like we were trying too hard to make a symbol out of it. We simply walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and looked at the Statue of Liberty because we could and it was there. How lucky we are to live in New York and be able to do that! It was one of those moments where you feel New York lifting you up and holding you in her arms, suspended like a cradle, above the East River. For the first time, I felt like that Bridge and that Harbor belonged to us.
We made it to Brooklyn, and then, in true New York fashion, were waylaid by subway delays on the 4-5-6 trains due to a mysterious “police investigation” on 77th Street. We missed our commuter train but got burgers and shakes at Shake Shack– short lines in the middle of a weekday are the perfect chance to see what all the fuss is about (apparently it’s about the shakes– the burgers and fries were fine but unremarkable). Despite this all-American meal, S. reflected that he still wasn’t quite American yet because he has to wait for the official letter from USCIS with the appointment for his Oath of Citizenship, which should be in 4 to 6 weeks.
“So you’re only half-American,” I joked.
“No, I think I’m 95% American now,” he said with conviction. We’ve come a long way since I began this blog 5 years ago and my husband described himself as 60% American.
I wonder what my Dad would have said about this news. I know he would’ve been excited, proud, and sarcastic, but I wish that he’d been alive to help quiz S. on American history and civics…and to teach him the “truth” behind our beloved founding myths. In so many ways, my Dad set the stage already, pushing S. towards his vision of America from the start. In 2009, when our fiancé visa was being processed and the prospect of immigration was imminent but not yet concrete, my father sent my then-fiancé a children’s book about Paul Bunyan and a very beautiful letter. We reread that letter together last night, and now that his English has become fluent and he has gotten used to my jokes and Dad’s metaphors, the letter affected my husband very deeply. I’m sure the boost from 60% to 95% in the last 5 years had as much to do with my father as with me.
From that letter, here is my Dad’s reflection on what America means:
“America is so young that we do not have proper ‘myths.’ Myths take centuries of telling and believing to become the story of what a people are. They turn the incredible into the landscape of ideas that people live with all the time. They are all about the time before time, or the beginning before we began.
We have many little lies–‘white lies’ is what we say in English–that we Americans call ‘history.’ Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock and ‘making friends’ with the Indians; Pocahontas falling in love with Captain John Smith and saving him from being put to death; George Washington as a boy chopping down a cherry tree (like Eve in the Garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit), and then saying to his father, ‘I cannot tell a lie–I chopped down this tree.’ They are weaker than myths, but our school children learn them to begin their idea of America.
And we have big lies–‘whoopers!’–that Americans call Tall Tales. These are also stories for the nursery or school-room and are told somewhere just beyond the moon of fairy tales. They never happened, but they have a time and a place that still exist. Their heroes are ‘bigger than life’. In fact they are almost bigger than language, and it takes enormous lies to lift them from the ground and carry them across the country.
I hoped this little book might explain the idea of Paul Bunyan, who I thought might give you a broader idea of the American sense of size. We like to think Grand Canyons are created when we drag our axe behind us.”
Even nomads need their founding myths. This letter is a blessing and now an artifact of one of ours.