Coming from the environment I hated and detested, longing for the United States with all my Soul and my Heart, I had been American before my feet ever touched the American soil. The rest was a process of waiting and overcoming all the legal hurdles. I became a citizen after 10 years of waiting and complying with the INS demands, which included mandatory return to Europe after 4 years on my HB visa, and filling in the request for a green card through the embassy in Prague. My lawyer told me that they “should comply and let me back” – thus, by leaving the United States physically, I was also running the risk that I would not be permitted to return. It was a costly hurdle, but I cleared it without major difficulties.
My language skills and knowledge of American culture served me in good stead. I had “Americanized” my name as soon as I could, after the revolution and communist fall. I was 18 then and my heart and soul was American. It was not until twelve years later that I was fortunate enough to secure a “sponsor” and arrive here. Going back after four years of my stay was not easy, as you can imagine, but I was told that there was no other way, which is true – certainly not for a white legal immigrant coming from Europe.
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For four years prior to my becoming a citizen, I was not permitted to travel abroad. I could, I was told, but I would have been risking being turned down when I requested citizenship. Sometimes, prioritizing is hard. My mother was dying of cancer and died one month before I finally received my US passport. Rules are rules. We are a country of laws.
Every last Thursday of the month, 6-7000 people (and nearly twice as many family members and friends) gather at the L.A. Convention Center on the occasion of receiving their citizenship. It is a solemn occasion, which most of us do not take lightly. Organization is awesome and the “swearing in” moved me to tears. For all the paperwork, Kleenex was something I forgot to bring along with me.
I find it hard to comprehend how someone who refuses to “Americanize” their name, worships their own language and culture, refuses to speak English… can be allowed entry in a few days on a “fiancée” visa!
Another issue is the number of Korean and Hispanic families who come here legally but, as I had the occasion to witness at the swearing in, barely bother to learn a word of English, insist that people pronounce their peculiar names and write them down. Many of the people who took the Oath of Allegiance with me when I was becoming a citizen not only did not speak English – but they were permitted to take the Oath in their own language! Everything was translated and interpreted into Spanish.
Finally, they played President Obama’s address, which welcomed us “to the DEMOCRATIC United States!” Immediately the next (“optional”) step was registration to vote. I can imagine that a person from Salvador or Venezuela does not even know that there is a Republican Party and that “democratic” does not mean Democrat, or that the registration to vote is optional…
Language means much more than understanding or “getting by.” Phrases, denotations, idioms and cultural ties of our childhood stay with us and, no matter how hard we try to sever them, they will return on occasion to catch us unawares, unprepared, betraying our “foreignness” in the adoptive country. This is almost akin to a foreign accent in one’s thoughts… I hate it, of course, but I would fain deny it happens. I cannot imagine how it works for someone keen on the habits and culture of their birthplace. They can never ever assimilate – not to mention becoming a true American.
We all know that language means culture. Once you try to read 100 Years of Solitude in Spanish or Kant in German (you can try it with a translation in the other hand) you will understand how indelibly and inextricably the two are intertwined. There exists no exact translation or interpretation which quite corresponds to the original. Again, take it from someone who ran a translation agency and was employed by the European Community as a “language expert.”
I recall how I tried to permeate the contemporary American culture by reading the Rabbit Trilogy by John Updike. I had to read it out loud to myself, record myself, play it back, learning sentences, even whole chunks of text by heart. I would look up every single word I was uncertain about, jot it down in an exercise book, finding new ways how to remember words, making up my own contexts, developing phrasal verbs and idioms with the same love some people daily weed and grow roses in their front yard.
John Updike has a special gift for capturing the common “Americanness” with all its shades of meaning and daily upheavals. What was the most difficult for me was the vocabulary tied to culture and cultural phenomena, available to everyone who lives in the United States today – brand names of kitchen products, soap operas or T.V. series… Living in a foreign land, non-English-speaking culture where, for instance, everybody uses kitchen cloths, how could one understand “paper towels” or what Kleenex means?
That is just one example of many. I also sat in a class of foreign students, all eager to learn English, all looking up to the professor (naturally the only native English speaker in the class), their eyes full of desire and what I would best call “healthy envy” saying: “I wish I could say it like that… ah!” and “What a beautiful pronunciation!” and “What is New York like?”
When he was explaining to us what “they” did on Christmas Eve and what food they ate – why, you should have seen the imagination and ravenous enquiries hurled his way! And, of course, many people abroad want to learn the “real English” with the American accent and all the power of the United States imbued in it. Who cares about: “Blimey! Have you been there indeed?” When you can say: “Yo, bro, wasn’t that a blast!” You can imagine how funny it can be in a foreign language classroom when students are trying to pronounce and learn colloquial American English phrases…
This is one of the reasons that many students of English living abroad know probably more about American and British history and literature than most native speakers, for whom it is often some compulsory high school “stuff” – something to go through quickly, get the grade, and “move on.” These students go to school every day, study and work hard – and dream their American Dream, abroad. Meanwhile, our students follow the ideologically biased Common Core, which teams with the prejudice of political correctness, teaching interpretations, not facts. The old saying “One original is worth a thousand interpretations,” sounds more like Confucius than Obama.
One cannot learn a foreign language without learning about the culture of the country in which it is spoken. Thus, it seems to me, the right to vote in the absence of understanding the language is truly an absurdity. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act obliges local governments to issue official translations of the ballot for minority groups. This only fosters their ignorance of our culture and our language. It also disadvantages other minorities, not strong enough to have the ballot translated. If you come from a non-Asian, non-Spanish speaking country, and you do not speak English, you will be greatly disadvantaged. How come some minorities are forced to learn English and others are not?
English is the richest, most widespread language in the world and the English-teaching profession is a trillion-dollar industry on which even many non-native English speakers thrive. No other language has the same ability assimilate foreign terms and expressions. This also suggests to me that no other country has the ability to assimilate as many cultures and foreign nationals than the largest English-speaking country in the world, the United States of America – provided that they want to be assimilated and that we insist on their assimilation!
Is assimilation not natural, something one should accept as a fact, similar to the fact that you adjust your diet to the food you can purchase in stores, no doubt different from what you were weaned on? If I lived in Mexico, I would definitely want to learn as much as I could about the culture, language and people. I would not sit at home like a pumpkin but go out, sign up for extra evening classes, pay a private tutor (if I could) to come to my home. What is more the “English-resistant” new immigrants will never learn the beauty of our culture and history – not if they do not read Huck Finn and Henry James, the “Way to Wealth” and “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
It seems to me that they are actually made to “fit” our “Common Core,” which despises our Founding Fathers because they were white, makes slavery something the United States created in order to discriminate, tears down the Old Glory and everything “offensive” (which includes digging up in cemeteries for great generals of the Civil War, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest – which I personally consider a crime). Add the pressure of political correctness, regulated meanings of words and the diminished ability of our own average American population to enlarge their vocabulary, improve grammar, master our history and be bold and proud of it. Watters’ World and Jay Leno’s “jaywalking” has shown us the abysmal gaps in knowledge of our national identity created by the Common Core and political correctness. Everybody wants to be a “citizen of the world” fighting world pollution and poverty. I realize the pathos of this vanity every time I cross the local park to the nearby pool, picking a piece of litter on the way to throw it into the trashcan a few steps away.
Seeing this mess of multiculturalism in our country – what incentive do we provide to the new immigrants to learn English and truly become proud Americans? What value do we place on citizenship? With each new “executive amnesty” and every new spending bill, the value of our citizenship decreases. To become a US citizen today means to immediately assume $200,000 of national debt per individual and to pay 40-50% taxes (property, city, state, federal… let me count the ways). Of course, people still come – because they can get “free stuff” and are still better off than in “their” countries. But why should they forsake their heritage and culture if they see ours crumbling? Who will we borrow from next – India, Iran, Russia?
You may have noticed that NBC, CNN, Aljazeera and others began to refer to the new (illegal) immigrants as “migrants.” This is another PC term, which, however, means what it says: they come here temporarily to squeeze US dry and wait out the period of socialism or tyranny in their countries. They neither immigrate to the US nor emigrate out of the country of their birth – the former would imply permanent stay and the latter permanent leave. “Migrants” means our permanent resignation – absolute liberalism at work: “Come here if you want, do what you want, leave as you will, use what you can, ask what you wish!”
Such attitude creates not the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave – but another Croatia, Slovenia, Greece… a transitory country too weak to impose its laws – save, perhaps, for imposing them on law-abiding citizens who will defend and fight for the Eagle and the Statute of Liberty no matter what.
All those who come here must be as American as John Wayne and apple pie. If someone cannot learn English and know our history and political system before they ever set foot on the American soil, they are not yet ripe and fit to come here and stay. Becoming an American citizen must be the highest prize and reward they will ever achieve – as it has been for me.