Saturday, Jul 3, 1999 4:00 PM UTC

Becoming an American

Who knew that applying for citizenship would require me to swear I'm not a torturer or a gambler, submit a photo with my "right ear showing" and write "I am wearing a brown jacket" even though I was wearing a green one?

This Fourth of July will be the fifth I have celebrated as an American citizen. This year, as in years past, as I sit around the barbecue to celebrate this country’s independence, I will no doubt entertain a few more people with the true story of the bizarre civic procedures I followed in order to become a citizen.

I was a Canadian (and am still considered one in Canada, where dual citizenship applies). I paid my taxes, held a steady job and was generally considered a nice person. I had moved to California in 1978. After residing here as a legal alien for 15 years, I wanted to vote. I wasn’t moving back to Canada anytime soon, so I figured I should become a bona fide American, with all the related privileges (like jury duty).

In the process of applying for citizenship, I was asked by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to swear on three forms, on three occasions and in three locations, that I wasn’t a communist. I also checked boxes swearing that I was not a Nazi, prostitute, torturer, habitual drunkard or illegal gambler, among other occupations.

The first time I was asked these questions was on the form I mailed on Sept. 29, 1993, with my photo (right ear showing, as the INS requested) and an $85 application fee. One year later, almost to the day, I was called in to the offices of the INS in downtown San Jose, Calif., for an interview.

The waiting room, with its institutional, colorless walls and linoleum floor, was packed with other aliens; every plastic chair was taken. I used the time to review a heavily photocopied sheet the INS had sent me, listing 100 typical questions and answers about the United States. “What do we call a change to the Constitution?” (an amendment); “Who said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’?” (Patrick Henry); and the brain-buster, “Where is the White House located?”

After half an hour, my name was called. I followed a uniformed young woman down a maze of hallways into her drab cubicle. With no preamble, she shot out several questions. Had I ever received a speeding ticket? (Yes.) Did I pay it? (Yes.) Did I pay my taxes? (Yes.) Which three presidents were assassinated? (Kennedy, Lincoln and Garfield.) How many members of Congress are there? (I forgot.)

Next she asked me to write the sentence, “I am wearing a brown jacket.” I was suspicious of the simplicity of the request. Was it a trick, since I was wearing a green jacket? Should I write “green” instead of “brown”? Would I be lying under oath if I wrote “brown”? Eventually I realized that she was just testing me for English skills. I wrote the sentence the way she said it. I felt sheepish showing her such a simple line. She took my piece of paper and nodded.

Then she handed me a new form. It was exactly the same list about whether I was a communist, Nazi, torturer and so on. I checked the “no” boxes and signed it. I was free to go.

Two weeks later, at 8 a.m., I joined nearly 1,000 shivering legal aliens from 100 countries in a line that wrapped around the San Jose Civic Auditorium. We stood patiently in the cold — grandmothers, businesspeople and babies, from all races and economic levels. Once I was inside, a worker handed me a piece of paper. It was the form again, reduced to a few questions, including whether I was a communist! No, I checked. No, no, no. Was it possible to become a communist in only two weeks? I wondered. Surely it took longer.

Reluctantly, I relinquished the green, plasticized alien card I had carried with me “at all times.” I felt naked without it. Over the years, it had become part of me in a secret kind of way, hidden in my wallet, always letting me know that I was different. In exchange, I received a certificate of citizenship, a form letter from President Clinton, material from the League of Women Voters on how to register to vote and a booklet containing the Constitution and a few pages of patriotic writings.

Civil servants herded us into a large hall and seated us. My fellow aliens and I politely listened to a speech by a judge about the joys of jury duty. Eventually, the audience was instructed to rise. Led by a speaker, we collectively denounced our countries of origin and agreed to take up arms against them. We were pronounced U.S. citizens. Someone near the front waved a tiny American flag. A few camera bulbs flashed.

I now had the right to serve on a jury, vote and work for the government. Fortunately, I don’t need food stamps, but at least I’m eligible.

Back at work, I walked down the hall to my office as though it were any other day. I had told only one person why I would be late. Suddenly a door opened and a group of 20 co-workers burst into an off-key but moving rendition of “America the Beautiful.” My office was a blizzard of red, white and blue streamers, flags and other Americana. Someone had baked an apple pie. We had a small party, dividing up the pie and laughing. I opened gifts and cards. My becoming an American seemed to mean something to them. I was touched.

That evening I asked my husband to take me to the Hard Rock Cafe for a hamburger, fries and a Coke. It seemed like the right thing to do.