A Fine Time to Become an American
Renowned Oxford-trained historian Niall Ferguson recounts his recent experience of becoming an American citizen. His unique impressions are both moving and surprising — even to him.
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I picked a fine time to become an American.
It was a grey, overcast morning in Oakland, California. I was one of 1,094 people of every color and creed, from 85 nations, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Yemen. We had gathered, anxiously clutching the requisite documents, outside the rather antique Paramount cinema.
I wasn’t the only new citizen of European origin, but we were a distinct minority. Rather to my surprise, the Chinese were the most numerous group, accounting for close to a fifth of the new Americans. (How many Americans became Chinese citizens that week?) Next were the Mexicans (more than 150 of them), then the Filipinos, closely followed by the Indians.
Yet it was the sheer range of countries represented that was most marvelous. The young man to my right, immaculately dressed in white, was from Eritrea. He had studied computer science in Wales and had initially come to California to work for NASA.
I approach any encounter with US bureaucracy weighed down by dread. So I wondered, would this be like the Department of Motor Vehicles, famed for its Soviet-style antagonism to the public? Or would it be more like the implacable, pitiless Internal Revenue Service?
In fact, the officials of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services could hardly have been more affable. The master of ceremonies was a genial, balding, bespectacled chap who won his audience over with a virtuoso display of multilingualism, chatting to us in what sounded like pretty fluent Spanish, Chinese, French, Hindi and Tagalog.
Yet this was very far from a multicultural occasion. Quite the reverse. To get us in the mood for our impending Americanization, a choir sang a patriotic medley, including a rather baroque setting of the preamble to the constitution, Yankee Doodle, and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.
Well, that did it! The way that song conjures up vast American landscapes (“From the redwood forest / To the Gulf Stream waters”) always gets me by the throat because, glimpsed in films, such vistas were what first drew me to the United States.
Then came the information about our rights and obligations—specifically, our right to vote, our option to obtain a passport and our inextricable link to the Social Security system. (Nothing— rather disappointingly—about the right to bear arms. And not a word about the spiraling federal debt we were all now on the hook for.)
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