The privileges of holding an American green card are a lot like what you get when you’re a guest at a country club: None of the cool privileges are afforded to you, and people tend to look at you as though you’re ancillary — it’s clear that, on a permanent basis, you don’t quite belong.
It was a humid Thursday in September 2007, a few weeks into my senior year of high school, and, after seven years of residency, I had finally received the date for my naturalization. The ceremony was at an ungodly early hour, in Dallas, and my mother drove me. By this point, no one in my family was a stranger to federal paperwork, dutifully renewing our green card membership at the prescribed dates through the years. I’d even tried to have some fun with my citizenship application. For those old enough to do so, a political affiliation box lay open: invitingly, luxuriously blank. I wanted to write in “socialist.” While generally appreciative of my sense of humor, my father did not smile when he heard this part of my plan:
“But it’s what I believe.”
“I don’t care what you believe. And neither will they.”
“You think they’ll flag me?”
“Why not? They’ve hauled us aside at the airport for having strange names.”
“But — ”
Citizenship, in my mind, was the ultimate membership. Green card holders cannot vote or serve on juries, the two examples of civic engagement that, in high school, I considered most thrilling and important.
The attendant bureaucracy was everything people complain about — my ceremony wasn’t scheduled for the same day as my brother’s, even though we were both minors and had applied simultaneously. On the morning appointed for me, I bathed and dressed quietly, my brother’s soft animal-like snores snuffling into the hall as I grabbed my book bag. My mother had printed directions to Dallas. I could tell she was nervous, hands gripping the steering wheel, muttering a short prayer to Lord Ganesh, the god of good fortune, for (roughly translated) an obstacle-free day as we set off.
This can’t possibly be the place, I thought to myself as, 45 minutes later, we turned into the parking lot of an unmarked building, nestled in the shadows of downtown Dallas’ looming towers, painted in bland broad bands of beige and white. A lone yellow exterior light glared at us, its grim shadow matching the thousand-yard stare of the impressively suited security guard standing outside. My mother handed me my Indian passport as we entered. I rubbed my thumbs over the gold lion embossed on the cover, its grooves sunk into the pebbly cover over nearly two decades of continent-hopping.
It was only when I sat down, my eyes adjusting to the darkness, the sleepiness reluctant to leave my limbs, that I realized I was the oldest person in the room, parents notwithstanding, by at least 15 years. Yes, I was a minor, but the other candidates in the room were humans who had only recently arrived on Earth, let alone America: Cradled in the arms of black, Hispanic, Asian, white parents lay sleeping infants, bright-eyed toddlers, gurgling babies. My mother, a lifelong fan of other people’s children, smiled at the babies and parents, while I gawped. How had I not qualified for the adults’ ceremony? I realized then that most everyone was dressed far better than I was, too, and therefore more prepared for the symbolism of the day: mothers in their Sunday best, hats. Bouquets of flowers in the laps of grandparents, colorful balloons that said “Congratulations!” in bouncy red, white, and blue print. Women in saris, fathers’ shoes polished like glittering coal. Bottles of champagne peeking out of diaper bags.
A Nigerian couple had outdressed everyone: The father wore a three-piece suit, complete with a pocket watch, his mustache groomed to perfection. The mother was wrapped in a robe I took to be traditional garb, the cloth blossoming with swatches of mustard yellow and red and spring green. Their sleeping baby was snugly bundled in cloth of a similar color profile. I stared at my jeans and flats in something approaching distress.
We waited. And waited. Babies woke in their bionic prams, and their parents quieted them. After about 90 minutes or so, an official whose face is no longer in my memory (perhaps this quality of effacement explains why she worked for the federal government in this particular capacity) strode to the front of the room and asked all applicants to rise. I was the only person who could stand by myself — every other almost-citizen of America was held aloft in their parents’ arms. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance, the Texas state pledge, and then, the official said, she’d recite each line of the oath of citizenship, and we were to say it back.
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
I said most of this. I did not repeat that I’d bear arms on America’s behalf, or that I’d perform noncombatant services in the Armed Forces, because I wouldn’t do either. I also didn’t say I’d renounce fidelity to foreign states, because I was — and am — just as much Indian as I am American, and my identities are equal, and unhyphenated. The bit about “work of national importance under civilian direction” sounded like spy-work, which is cool, so I said it loudly.
On first blush, this ceremony marked the delivery on a great promise: that if you play by the rules, you can become a true, legal member of the most envied nation on Earth. It’s what my parents had worked for, paid for; it’s what I’d understood all along as a destination, an end point to the journeys on which immigrants embark. But the physical and emotional tone of what had just passed gave an entirely different signal: waiting, followed by a rather dull oath, followed by more waiting. No cheers, claps, or confetti.
One task remained: more paperwork. Each applicant now had to sign the Extremely Official and Excruciatingly Important Certificate of Citizenship. I think it was here that we became true Americans, our body language less composed, our internal monologues climbing in irritation: OK, we did what you said, we showed up, we swore an oath — can we go now? Parents checked cell phones, grandparents fanned themselves, children began to squall. I hid a smile. The scene before me was starting to resemble the Department of Motor Vehicles.
When my turn came the woman at the window looked surprised to see someone who was older than seven months.
“Please practice your signature here,” she said, pushing toward me a blank piece of paper. I did as she asked.
“Now sign another six times.”
I stared at her. “Why?” I asked.
My mother nudged me, and she wasn’t wrong; asking questions here was like defending your rights to full-size shampoo bottles at airport security.
The window woman was nonplussed. “Because if you make an error on your certificate you will have to pay $650 for a new one, and it takes anywhere from six months to a year to get a new one.” Why didn’t you mention there was money involved? I practiced my signature, trying to will my sleepy eyes into cooperation with my right hand. The certificate was rather ordinary, just like the entire ceremony: I signed it carefully. No mistakes. My mother sighed in relief.
“Congratulations,” said the woman, in a tone contrary to her words. “You’ll receive your passport in the mail in three to six weeks.”
My mother and I thanked her, turned, and walked back out to her car. It was nearly 9 o’clock.
“Do I have to go to school?” I asked, my body still resentful of disrupted slumber at the American government’s request.
“Of course you do,” my mother said as she reversed the car.
“But I’m an American now,” I protested. “What’s more American than taking the day off?”
My mother laughed and said I could take a nap, but that she’d take me to school later in the morning. And it was only at school that I felt the significance of the day taking shape. Someone, possibly my brother, had explained my absence to my classmates and teachers. I reached AP U.S. comparative government (how appropriate) too late to join the three fellow seniors with whom I daily read the announcements on the PA, but as I took my seat in class I heard my male co-hosts mention me.
“We’d like to take a second for a special announcement. If you don’t know Nandini Balial, she’s the only person in this booth you can usually understand. She’s too dedicated to ever miss announcements, but this morning, she’s not here because she’s in Dallas becoming a citizen of the United States. So congratulations, Nandini, and welcome!” I blushed and laughed as my classmates burst into applause. Throughout the day, as I passed teachers and friends and administrators, I was cheered, congratulated, hugged, and received so many high fives I could’ve passed for an athlete.
And perhaps that’s the idea. It’s not the room in which you become a citizen, or the quality of the paper that confirms your status, or how you celebrate. It’s that you are celebrated by others.