one million words

find your voice. tell your story.

on becoming an American Citizen

It’s 3am on tuesday and I am awake, wishing my body wouldn’t trade nervous excitement for sleep. My long awaited naturalization interview is at 7am- plenty of time to entertain ridiculous what-if-today-goes-badly scenarios. Its raining hard on my way downtown in stop and go traffic. I arrive at the immigration at 7, clear security, then join applicants wait patiently in a sterile and silent waiting area upstairs. My name is called at 7:50am. We walk through doors, down the hall into a private office.  The friendly guy with the pink bow tie flips through my file, past wedding photos to current stuff. I verify pertinent information. He checks my green card. He looks up, curiously. “What took you so long?” It’s my first real question and I didn’t rehearse an answer. I could have applied for citizenship years ago. He wants to know why I had not. I don’t have a compelling reason. I want to sound passionate, worthy…not like some half hearted, nonpartisan procrastinator that loathes paperwork and is glad to have an excuse for jury duty. Becoming a US citizen is a dream come true and I have called these states home for 20 years. I just had not made the application a priority. And PS my green card is up.  “It’s something I have thought about doing for a long time…i finally offer… and I guess it’s time to do it, now”. Sounds lame, I think as soon as the words leave my mouth. He smiles past lame and we move along. “You’re a therapist’, he sounds pleased. “This is not part of the interview, but i have been getting this pain…..” We digress into patient land where I know answers. Then a whooping 6 questions from the official US quizz, i write one simple sentence and stamp, stamp, sign sign, we’re done. Come back at one if you want to become a citizen today.

I do, so I return at 1 to a crowded waiting area. About 30 of us will become citizens today and we are invited into another room. There are rows of chairs, a large screen, an american flag on either side. A lady calls us by name, hesitantly, trying her best to pronounce strings of letters that don’t look like they belong next to each other. At least not in english. A beautiful girl from Africa sits to my left. She has not been home in a decade. She is not sure if she ever will. But you- she asks? Why you not like Germany? I try to explain in 30 seconds that I do like Germany- not the communist version of East Germany I grew up in but the now Germany but I still somehow feel like I belong here. For now. The judge congratulates us on being good moral people who want to commit to this great country. Next we sing the national anthem; we, the randomly assembled disconcordant immigrant choir, right hand covering our hearts.

A short movie is next. No words. No instruction. This is for inspiration. Soft music is setting the mood, taking us back in time. We see weary travelers waiting in a crowded East Coast harbor. Children smiling dancing, and waving. Flags. Families huddled together, holding hands. Exhausted women clutching small sacks of belongings. Mothers with infants wrapped tightly against their chest. Dreamers. Escapists. Refugees. Freedom seekers. Adventurers. Risk Takers and Trailblazers. Tag alongs and helpless ones. All walking forward to a new life. To greater freedom. I watch and I weep. Their story, is our story and some of us came with two suitcases and then we settle and call this our new home. It’s never easy, this change, this wondering where you belong but to us who sit here, it’s what we want. So we raise our hands to swear an oath of loyalty this, our new home. We are official citizens now and the president welcomes us via DVD message. We hold small flags and wait for our turn to get our certificate. When its almost my turn and I walk by the guy from South Africa- he winks- hey-no more cheering for the german soccer team!

Its time for the pledge of allegiance. A couple elementary age boys sit back in the visitor section. Come on up, guys and join me, the friendly judge urges. You guys know the pledge of allegiance! The grin slyly and shake their head defiantly from side to side. “No!” they shout. “Come on up guys!” He tries to engage a couple more times. They wildly shake their head. These boys don’t look shy- they simply don’t feel like co-operating.  I am waiting for someone to intervene. Help them show respect. A parent, perhaps an authority? No action is taken. The judge does not look angry. We simply proceed. When I was that age we marched around in uniforms singing the praises of the government. A picture of the communist dream. No disagreements. Just puppets performing.  Not here. You can have an opinion here, be your own person however immature. I feel the grace of this moment. Freedom is the platform for the grace on which we stand. All of us here. In this moment. Those born afar with unusual names. Those seemingly ungrateful ones seated near. There is grace for both because of freedom. And i am continually invited into this spacious place where freedom is real and grace extends far. And I stand here, gratefully with you, in my new home.

“He brought me out into a spacious place, he rescued me because he delighted in me.” Psalm 18;19

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5 Replies

  1. Shawna

    What a great post–I felt like I was there. Wonderful insights on freedom, too. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You did it again!!!!! Your writing style was totally different than the advent…
    You pulled me in, showed me, reminded me, then applied freedom and grace.
    Astrid, keep writing!

  3. Claudia

    Lovely story, Astrid! I found your blog from Compel, and couldn’t resist this title. My mother was born in the former East Germany, in Erfurt. She and my father (Luxembourg) became citizens about 30 years after their arrival in Chicago. I will search more on your blog for stories about your time in East Germany and how you came to the United States. I visited East Germany in 1981 and never forgot the experience. I love the way you took your reader to that appointment with your words! May the Lord bless and keep you, and make His face to shine upon you!

    1. Astrid Melton

      Cool. I am from Leipzig, actually visiting right now. I am sure a visit to East Germany in 1981 was unforgettable :). We just went to the East German museum in Berlin which was an interesting flashback.

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