On Becoming a Citizen
Esquire, Jun 2015
After 15 years in Los Angeles, Esquire’s Anglo-Indian-in-America has finally become our American in America. And he’s got the citizenship certificate to prove it. Is he one of them now? Or will he always be one of us? Can he be both? Is he neither? There’s nothing like pledging allegiance to make a man question whose side he’s on.
[Photographs by Steve Schofield]
[Also read at Esquire]
The point of it comes, the clincher, when a judge approaches the podium in his courtly robes and tells us to stand. Hand on heart, he says, repeat after me. And all 3191 of us recite the oath of allegiance and renunciation. A huge flag looms on the stage behind him. Three stories tall, pulled taut and lit up like a trophy, it’s the only blast of color in an otherwise grey convention center. If you look back over the crowd, you can see its stars and stripes reflected in our eyes, some of them moist with emotion.
Not mine though. This feels wrong – the giant hall, the giant flag, the reciting in unison. Didn’t Orwell talk about this? I’m all for becoming an American, but this flag cult seems iffy. I’ve never been a flag person. In fact, the whole flag thing is a red flag. Growing up in London in the 80s, Union Jack pubs were the ones to steer clear of. One learned to be wary of the red white and blue if you were small and brown. I’m fine with swearing to things – I made it through my wedding vows after all. But even my wife didn’t require me to take up arms against enemies foreign and domestic. What if I’m not keen on “arms”? How can I renounce all allegiances to Britain if I’m keeping my passport? And what good is “so help me God” if I’m an atheist?
I ought to recuse myself. Oaths aren’t meant to be mumbled. I should put my hand up and apologize in a terribly English fashion. I say, your Honor, I’m awfully sorry, but I think there’s been a mix-up. You see I’m from Wimbledon. I’m not supposed to be here…
The naturalization ceremony is the last leg of a long road to American citizenship. It’s meant to be the welcome at the gates, and yet it manages to compress into half an hour most of my least favorite things about the country. Aside from the flags, the God talk, and a relentless theme of war – the marching music in the background, the pledge to take up arms, and a national anthem about “bombs bursting in air” – there’s also, at the end, a music video. Not James Brown’s “Living in America” or Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, but a song called “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood, a minor country singer from Los Angeles. It’s his signature hit, and it’s as mawkish as it sounds. The video is a cheese platter of sunsets and cowboys, happy children and the moon landing. All that’s missing is a chant of U-S-A! U-S-A! and maybe a round of gunfire.
Nationalism is a hokey business, wherever you go. Hokey and deadly – it’s where Hallmark meets bloodshed and plunder. The British are no better. Had I been born not in London but some other country, and longed to be a Brit, I wouldn’t be tested on the Beatles or Dickens. It’d be all flags and wars and questions about the Queen, which would get the mumbled responses they deserve. Would I hurl myself into battle to defend her? Well if I couldn’t wriggle out of it, I suppose, although if her Majesty needs the help of a pot-bellied forty something who tests positive for marijuana, then I don’t fancy her chances. Which is to say, I’d answer yes, without equivocation. Because there’s the kind of honesty you reserve for your doctor and your wife, and the kind you keep for your friends. But immigration officials are a loooong way down the list. All these oaths doth protest. When dealing with Kafka’s Castle, you just say what you’re supposed to, everyone does. Luckily, it’s an easy test to ace – all the right boxes to tick are in a row, like landing lights.
Here’s the last box I had to tick to get my certificate. Simple yes or no will do: “Since your interview, have you practiced polygamy, received income from illegal gambling, been a prostitute, procured anyone for prostitution or been involved in any other commercialized vice, encouraged or helped any alien to enter the United States illegally, illicitly trafficked in drugs or marijuana, given any false testimony to obtain immigration benefits, or been a habitual drunkard?”
Frightfully sorry, your Honor, it’s me again. Is twice a week considered “habitual”?
This part’s true, though, no mumbling this time: The farther I’ve travelled on this path to Americanization, the more English I’ve felt. Even now, standing before the stars and stripes, I’m in no doubt. It feels a bit adulterous, but that’s OK. Because I’m not saying that I don’t feel American – I do, just in a different way. My loyalties are bifurcated. It’s the one thing I have in common with Pierce Brosnan and Anthony Hopkins, who both have two passports, the second of them American. In these globalized times, multiple citizenships abound.
Of course Hopkins is as Welsh as Brosnan is Irish, no matter what fealties they’ve sworn elsewhere. There’s a distinction between nationality and citizenship, between where you’re from and “where you’re at”, as they say over here. Your nationality is the culture that made you and retains a grip on your heart; citizenship, however, is a government certificate that allows you to fully participate in the society in which you live. At its minimum, American citizenship permits me to vote, and requires me to serve on juries, both of which I look forward to. But I don’t feel the same ardor as I do for England. And it’s odd to use that word, because when I lived in England I felt quite differently. You never know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it.
My loyalties were always split. I’m of that generation. Born in England, with Indian parents, I fell between stools from day one. When it came to Norman Tebbit’s test, I failed. In 1990, the Tory peer famously challenged the loyalty of England’s immigrants by asking which cricket team they supported. I was a teenager, searching for identity, so I cheered for “my people”, the downtrodden colonials. I’d read up on the evils of the Raj and felt the righteous anger of the oppressed. And anyway, it was my only opportunity, India being so embarrassingly bad at all other sports.
But it was a sham. I lacked the heart of a proper fan, that primal sense of tribe. I wish it wasn’t so. I suspect it points to a deficit of character, a sign of flimsiness, but the truth is, I wasn’t particularly wounded when India lost or when Chris Waddle missed the penalty in Italia 90. Grown men shed tears that day, and I envied them. But since it wasn’t in me, I went to the other extreme – I rejected it all. I didn’t have two nationalities, I decided, I had neither. Patriotism was for sheep and fools. I would be an individual, a human, a tribeless, rootless citizen of the world.
I’ve changed my tune since then. There’s nothing like emigrating to bring your national identity into focus. Like aging, it’s been a slow process, imperceptible day to day, but give it years and you wind up here, swearing oaths to a giant flag. “Naturalization” is the kind of word Monsanto might come with (and swiftly patent) – a word that would have you believe that one’s nature can be altered by a process of forms and flags. It can’t, but time is insidious, and those forms take years. I moved to Los Angeles in 2000 – four score and 100 months, give or take. And even though I thought that my clay had mostly set by the time I arrived, 15 years in a foreign country will have its say.
The first thing that happened when I arrived was that I became the English guy. (That’s when I’m not being mistaken for a Latino, which happens too.) In England, being English was never a thought, let alone the source of my identity. If anything, I was the Indian, the brown sheep of the herd. But in LA, Englishness is my difference, and I’m confronted by it at every turn. I’m the “Brit” in the room, as the English are commonly known here. People seek me out to tell me about that time they went on the Piccadilly line and ate fish and chips. It’s not always fascinating, but it is friendly. And it doesn’t stop. Years have passed in which I’ve learned to say sidewalk and candy bar and hardware store without thinking, but still the accent betrays me. “I’ll just have a mocha, thanks” – no you won’t, because the barista’s been to England and there’s no escape. Before he’s done, he’ll have you thinking about Soho, Hyde Park, the world you left behind. And you might miss it. I did.
The other thing that happens is a kind of identity osmosis. Though my core is English, with some India thrown in, a pinch of turmeric, changes happen at the surface. My borders are porous like America’s. And while America seeps in, England seeps out. Habits of speech, humor and manners, they recede and I feel the loss. So in the expat fashion, I try to protect what’s left. I defend England in arguments. There’s a map of England on my office wall. The accent is intact. I have even developed the American habit of finding English accents delightful, because for me they sound like home. It’s taken a while, but I now realize that I love England and miss it. I’d never have talked that way before.
I should be more grateful. People have paid a mighty price to pursue the dream of America. They have drowned on boats from Cuba. Bleached bones in the Mojave desert. Mothers put their children on buses in El Salvador. And in the front row sits a group of soldiers from Mexico who joined the US army and served in Iraq just to gain citizenship. No doubt not everyone who made that choice came home unscathed.
But me, I just bumbled in. Virgin Atlantic to LAX. There was no dream of citizenship or freedom. I came because my mate offered me a ticket, and a spare room, and I didn’t have anything else going on.
I was living in Shoreditch at the time, 28 and adrift. No money, no job and no girlfriend. But I had hope, the blind kind you have in your 20s, and LA looked like a world of maybes – maybe a job, maybe a girl, maybe my mate’s rap label would hit the big time and we’d be making it rain like Lil Wayne. If not, there was always the return flight, or so I thought. Sometimes a shruggy decision can determine the course of your life. For me, America was a whim that turned permanent like a drunken tattoo.
Step one was a visa – the first rung on the citizenship ladder. And I was lucky. My Beverly Hills lawyer told me he could wangle an O1, the visa for the “alien of extraordinary ability”. It was meant for celebrities and geniuses, unique talents that can’t be found in the United States. “But you can apply too,” he said. Apparently journalists are eligible if they have a job waiting and enough friends with fancy titles who can write letters of recommendation. The job offer didn’t have to be genuine. “They can withdraw it the day you get your visa, no one cares,” he said. “Just make sure you put all your work in there.” I warned him that it wasn’t exactly Pulitzer material. Much of my oeuvre at the time consisted of interviews with bra models for men’s magazines. “Don’t worry, these people don’t read,” he said. “They’re bureaucrats.”
That visa lasted a year and a half. A period of insanity. Guns went off, the rap label went south, my mate went to rehab and the money went to Colombia. So I found another sponsor, bought some more time – yet another wild plan to make trillions in Hollywood, which died in a similar fashion. There’s a tradition of cash-happy foreigners who come to LA ostensibly to launch businesses, but end up pissing it away on gak and girls. Having hitched myself to two such flameouts, I wound up sponsorless once again. And this time, my visa was running out.
By rights, I should have just flown home. I still had no job, no money and no plan. But incredibly, I’d snagged a girl – or rather the girl. And we’d already talked about marriage, it was just a matter of pushing the date up. In retrospect, I’m not sure how I pulled this off, but I suspect my Englishness played a part. The accent thing is real.
Rung two, the green card, was a harder slog. They don’t just hand those things out. They want bank statements, tax returns, a clean medical, wedding photos, proof of residence – all of it to prove that our marriage wasn’t a sham. (And shams were easy to come by – at the time, a fake green card marriage could be arranged for about $20,000). The critical stage is the joint interview, in which an immigration official meets both husband and wife and ascertains whether they’re bullshitting or not. You show up at the grim federal building downtown, go through the metal detectors, and wait for your number to be called.
“Didn’t your parents want you to marry an Indian?” the man behind the desk asked. He was a doughy type, a snacker, a series of stacked blobs like a snowman, with glasses so thick you couldn’t see what his eyes were saying. “Because your people are strict on your customs. I saw it on the television. They don’t like the wife, they just burn her. Stick her on the fire.”
If he was joking, he wasn’t laughing. We’d come prepared to talk about how we met, our honeymoon and who has what color toothbrush. This was bizarre. I chuckled weakly and explained that my parents live in Wimbledon, actually, near the tennis. More strawberries and cream than bride burning.
“Oh doesn’t matter where they live,” he said, turning to my wife. “You better watch out, next time you visit. Once they get that fire going out back…”
We let it go and got the green card. But all the way home, I ranted: This wouldn’t happen in England, they have manners there, they’re not so ignorant… I’d been in the country nearly four years, and felt more aggressively English than ever. Not just American officialdom but the whole country took a hiding. The telly was naff. The sports were lame. They can’t say aluminum or oregano. They’re just a bunch of fat, greedy, gun happy, racist, arrogant, Bible-thumping manifest destiny motherfuckers, AND they can’t make cheese. This was a real issue at the time. The sun shines all year in LA. There’s beach and mountains and pretty girls everywhere. But I was bitching about the cheese.
With emigration comes loss and then grieving. In Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, the first is denial. In those early years, I was in denial that I’d actually left. The excitement and mayhem of the rap label was built on the illusion that I could return as easily as I’d come. But as the years ticked by, the permanence of the move sank in. I was married now. No children but a dog, and then another. It reads “permanent resident” on the green card. And that led to stage two – anger. I recoiled at the thought that America might actually be home.
This was a period of sitting in pubs with other English people having the same conversation over and over. First we’d rail against our new home, and then we’d idealize our old one. The railing was easy, everyone was doing it – George W Bush had just been re-elected. But the second part was more personal, a kind of therapy. Top of the list of the things we missed about England was the banter, the piss taking. And from there, we’d rattle off cultural references – the bands, the TV shows, the commercials – until eventually, we’d end up rummaging in the attic of our childhoods, laughing about Joey Deacon and the desecration of the Blue Peter garden. Someone would mention cheese and onion crisps, and once you start on the sweets and biscuits, it’s all over. Oh do you remember Curly Wurlies and Jaffa Cakes and Sherbert Dib Dabs? You just list things. Each one opens a door. Monster Munch. The Caramel rabbit. Opal fruits, made to make your mouth water.
It might have looked pathetic from the outside, but there was comfort in it for us. Delight even. Expats seize the chances they get to reminisce. Nostalgia is natural as you slide from your thirties into the fours, and living abroad, it gets tangled together with your feeling for the country. England becomes a place of the past, of memory and youth when so much seemed possible. I longed for London the way I longed for my twenties. The whole era turns misty, burnished by recollection. I know that life wasn’t as wonderful then as I now remember it, but that’s how nostalgia works. Both expats and Americans fantasize about England in their own ways.
Stage three is bargaining. Maybe I haven’t lost England after all. Maybe I can keep it alive, through expat groups like Brits in LA. So I went to a few of their brunches in Beverly Hills. And I don’t want to knock them, the organizers are nice people, but this wasn’t the England I cherished. It’s a patriot crowd, which means flags and a few old timers, whingeing about “Yanks”. I don’t find the England I miss when I go home either. My friends have moved on and out to the country with their kids. The old haunts are gone. The scenery has changed. It’s not as easy to flit back and forth, to indulge that salmon-like instinct to return to the source. So increasingly my England is trapped in amber. It’s a movie of my old life, slowly turning to sepia.
The last two stages of the Kubler-Ross model, depression and acceptance, aren’t quite so dismal as they sound because the loss of England is being offset by the gain of America. Admittedly, I sat on that green card for a few years when I could have applied for citizenship immediately. I wasn’t ready at first. I was sentimental. But you’re meant to know who you are by the time you’re 40. And that’s about how long it took me.
Acceptance began with getting India out of my system. I moved there for work in 2008 and quickly realized that it would never be home. I found the place maddening. When a government bureaucrat handed me the citizenship application and said my ancestry made me eligible, I handed it back. The chances of both America and England falling into the sea seemed remote.
At that point, we might have returned to either London or Los Angeles. Arguments were weighed, lists made, and in the end practicality reigned. London was the more uncertain and expensive choice, and LA was still seductive. Still unexplored. So back we came. Only this time, it wasn’t a shruggy decision but a choice. A commitment. And straight away the settling began. We bought a house. We planted trees. We sank our roots into the soil.
When Christopher Hitchens became a citizen in 2007, his reasons were political and pure. After 9.11 he wanted to stand fully with his American brothers and sisters. Living on a green card, he said, was cheating on his dues. I’m less pure – my motives are bifurcated like everything else. The self-interest is that my parents are old and I want to sponsor them to retire here if they want. And if my marriage goes kaput I needn’t go in search of a visa again. The ground beneath my feet is solid now, metaphorically at least (I live in an earthquake zone.)
But equally, I want America to thrive. Countries give you things, they pour into your life, and America, for all its flags, has been generous – a wife, my dogs, a home and friends. I want to do my bit. Add my voice to the roar. I realize I’m one of 700,000 new naturalized citizens per year, among over 200 million eligible voters. A speck in a huge herd. But better a speck than a spectator.
For the citizenship test I returned to the same grim federal building downtown, only this time to a higher floor and a welcoming smile. I wasn’t waiting for a number anymore, but my name. Already the gates are opening. It’s a room with a view, a spacious airport-style lounge, with CNN on the widescreen. The hosts are yakking about the Kardashians. Ah America. And once I answered my six questions out of a possible hundred – questions like “what was Benjamin Franklin famous for?” – that was it. I was handed an invitation to the next grand swearing in. No more government buildings – they hold these in convention centers, stadiums and concert halls. It’s an occasion with a dress code and everything. No jeans for the America ceremony. No sneakers.
Thankfully, when I get there, there are jeans and sneakers everywhere. No one cares. It’s a happy day, so happy we can’t stop clapping. We applaud the Judge, the troops, the President. But the loudest round of applause was the one we gave ourselves. Hooray for us. It doesn’t get more American than that.
I’m still the English guy here. Still the guy who gets cornered with stories about the Piccadilly line. And I’ll still treasure my chances to reminisce, to keep that kernel intact. With my English friends here, our rituals of comfort and recognition often involve quoting television comedies – the League of Gentlemen, Nathan Barley, Alan Partridge. We pull the references out of a drawer, give them a polish and set them back again, like heirlooms. The precious things of the shop. There’s no Kipling rhapsodies about the old country, and no sighing complaints about the new one. Just that faint sense of longing, which is the eternal condition of the expat. And it’s good to long, it grows the heart.
“Wallet! Wallet! Ten dollar!”
A shabby Hispanic man with a cart has waded into the flood of happy new citizens as we pour out of the hall. I can’t tell if he’s a citizen himself. His English is more than a bit patchy. But he’s doing a brisk business today, selling wallets for our naturalization certificates, the ones that some are holding up like the FA Cup. They come in red, black and the stars and stripes.
“Diez dolares, senor,” he says, assuming I’m Latino.
My wife’s waiting downstairs. We’re going to head home, take the dogs for a hike and get waffles for breakfast. It’s another beautiful day in LA.
Go on then. I’ll take the flag one.