The Stars and Stripes fly over the Financial District in Manhattan, NYC

Thoughts on American citizenship

I just got an email from my company’s Global Migration team about U.S. Naturalization Workshops they’re hosting. I laughed for a bit and then smiled at the fact that this is relevant in the company and then that something like this would be offered for free. It would be a 30 minute session, 1:1 with a naturalization attorney to discuss the family situation, and the process (there’s a LOT of process).

Then I realized that this actually applies to me too. For those who don’t already know, even though I’ve lived a total of 18 years (out of my 24) in the United States, I’m still technically a citizen of the Republic of Korea. Sure, I’ve been a visa holder, and now bear a Permanent Residency, but in some ways there’s always been some sort of invisible barrier, or mark that subtlely reminded me that I was still an outsider. Growing up, this wasn’t something that really seemed to matter, other than being a mental note and a BIG inconvenience when applying for colleges, jobs, etc. When I first came back to the U.S. in 2000, I as a J-2 dependent, under my dad’s J-1. J-visas, I believe, are for foreign contract workers, without the intent to immigrate; in other words, not allowed to apply for permanent residency. At some point, I shifted to R-2 under my mom, and had it until moving to PR status. Yes, what an honor; I am now a resident alien of this country, and have my fingerprints in some database in the Department of Homeland Security. Yay.

Not surprisingly, I’ve always felt that my relationship to the U.S. government and the country itself was a bit conditional; despite growing up taught that my story is one of many millions, and virtually every person with an immigrant story in their family history (yes white people, you fall into this category too–gasp), yet something seems to happen to those people bearing the U.S. Citizen title, and enjoy privilages not available to the millions of other non-citizens living in this land.

Let me say in advance, that I don’t quite use the terms “American” and “U.S. citizen” interchangably. I know U.S. citizens that haven’t spent more than a few weeks of their adult lives in this country, and certainly don’t relate to the culture, as well as non-citizens that are working for the political campaigns, pay dues to the NRA, and have kids in American public schools. Who’s the more “American” one of those two?

Most people don’t really think about citizenship this way–they’re either born into one country or the other, and they don’t bother doing anything else. If they choose to stay in the United States, they’re generally happy about it enough, and their citizenship status to care. Even activist Americans that seem to treat the term as if holding a little bit of shame don’t deny that they’re Americans. For most people, it’s really simple–it’s something associated with the country you happen to live in; it’s something you’re born with, and no more changable than the culture you live and breathe. Having spent 2/3rds of my life in this country (and probably 90% of my formative years), and yet still not being a citizen, I’ve always thought of the concept very archaic, and with regards to the process of changing citizenship, it’s filled with rules that I never really bought into logically. As a teacher, what do you teach a kid that’s learning about Thanksgiving in school, if there are non-citizens in the room? Do you call them out to recognize that they’re different, or that this history doesn’t apply to them, or teach that there isn’t anything different, and that many cultures come together to make this country? My second grade teacher (Mrs. Halversen, Willard Elementary; Evanston, IL–if you ever see this, you’re awesome!) chose the latter, and it seemed to make sense; for natural-born and naturalized Americans, as well as foreigners and hybrids like me.

Well that’s great when you’re growing up, or in college, grad school, med school. You’re paying money (or your parents are in the form of taxes) to get an education, and people will generally assume that you’re a contributing member of society. Growing up, many of my friends were in a simlar boat, and that made it very easy to discuss the challenges, and work through the ambiguous. Besides, our pride for Naperville North, the Fighting Illini, and Chicago was far more feverent than this abstract concept of national pride. Much of that changes if you choose to work, and take those skills/knowledge that you gained while in school to make money in the great U, S of A, like I’ve chosen to do. Sure much of the multi-culturalism is there, but now that taxes, elections, and societal impact are concerned, it seems to matter so much more what color your passport is. I believe I’m contributing to the larger world, but I’ve definitely been privilaged to have grown up, and to work and live where I do.

Do I consider myself American? Haha, that’s a tough question. Historically, I’ve said no, and understood that my status made me somewhat different. Do I consider myself Asian-American? Absolutely. The feelings, privilages, and difficulties as well as my story fits very closely. Is citizenship tied to it? It probably should, more than it does, but I feel my experience would have been the same even if I had been born as a citizen. If my parents I had moved to Chicago a year earlier, I would have been a natural-born American, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. As for citizenthip, despite the fact that it should be the ultimate representation of your heart’s loyalty to a culture, usually, the reasons why someone is one or the other is completely arbitrary, and influenced far more by practical reasons than one’s loyalty to the words of Francis Scott Key.

And you know what… I think I’m okay with that. Kind of like software patents, it’s an archaic system that’s broken in so many ways, that it might as well be scrapped. But it provides some value, and in a noisy world where we need to label and generalize to live and make sense of things, it helps a great deal. It’s not a problem that many have to even think about, my parents certainly didn’t, and my kids probably won’t–but as a very small segment of the story, I feel a need to write about my experience. I’ll do that some day. In the mean time, I’ll check out this workshop =).

Thanks Global Migration team!