And I am an American

Jan. 12, 2017, 9:20 a.m.

“Sixty-five of 66 are present despite the cold, Your Honor.”

The judge smiled. “You know, while my son was hoping for a snow day, I hoped for your sake that they wouldn’t close the courts. Because I couldn’t stand the thought of having you wait a day longer.”

Waiting. That was a word that I had heard often in the last 15 years. Why couldn’t we get a green card yet? Waiting. Why wasn’t I a United States citizen? Waiting. We applied ages ago! Why haven’t we been called to interview? Waiting, waiting, waiting.

And in the sterility of the system, the brokenness of frustration, the weariness of years, there was something comforting about that validation. There was something so human in that compassion: He couldn’t stand for us to wait any longer.

The courtroom was surprisingly packed that day. I had expected a small affair – I had never been to a naturalization ceremony before, and figured that not many would wish to trek to a courthouse on a frigid Kentucky morning. Instead, even the line for security was so long that it trailed outside the door. I stood in the swirling snow for several minutes before I was even allowed to stand in line inside.

Once I arrived, the affair proceeded a bit like high school graduation, in the sense that we were pre-ordered into seats, then ushered about until at last we sat in the final courtroom. My heart skipped a beat when they stamped a hole in my green card; I had once considered that two-by-three-inch plastic a crowning achievement of a long wait. The image it displayed – of myself as a smiling 10-year-old – was the final attachment on each of my college applications.

And I watched as a hole tore across the neat print of my name, watched the plastic fall away into a dark bin.

During the long ceremony, I often paused simply to marvel at the beautiful diversity in the room. The 65 of us represented over 30 countries; many arrived in traditional clothing. At moments, I found myself mesmerized just watching everyone – losing count of the intricate stitches on one man’s vest, admiring the carefully-pinned curls in one woman’s hair that were held back by a gold hair ornament. I watched as, ahead of me in line, an Australian woman befriended a man from Myanmar; I watched as fellow immigrants aided an elderly man who struggled to make his way down the line.

And there was, too, something profound about the way each of us stood to introduce ourselves. Just before we completed the oath and received our certificates, we stated our former nationalities – because America is a nation composed of nations. The prejudice of the current national rhetoric and the coarseness of xenophobia cannot erase our identities. For we were proud of our nationalities – we were wearing it in our hair and in our clothing, we were speaking fondly about our countries to the new friends we had met: “Where are you from?” “Somalia, and you?”

Thus I stood before a sea of nations and said, “I’m Emily. I’m from China. I live in Louisville.” And I am an American.

Contact Xinlan Emily Hu at xehu’at’

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