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Becoming an Asian Gringa

While I was on permanent resident status in the US, I was held at Dulles International Airport on one of my return trips from Manila. I was instructed to go to an area where other foreigners were watching the Football World Cup on the Screen (the real football according to my European friends) . It was US vs Germany and everyone in the waiting area was glued to the game, with no qualms of why we were being held by Homeland Security. By this time I had already been living in the US for almost 10 years, and had been in and out of the country at least 2 or 3 times a yr. It took a couple of years to overcome the anxiety of the possibilities of being denied entry every time I returned to the US, or being questioned of my stay even if I had legal status. So now this, waiting with the others who were facing deportation. I was going thru scenarios of why I was being held, and excuses for the bottled gourmet sardines in my suitcase that I did not declare in the blue slip of paper. Was I supposed to declare it? Play innocent and ignorant would be strategy. After about a 20 min wait, and pretending to cheer for the US team, I was asked to approach the desk by a Homeland Security Officer. The first thing he said in a friendly tone, "the only way to fix this is to become a citizen". Turns out I had the same name as a wanted criminal in the Interpol list! The officer's advise was to apply for citizenship the following year since I would be eligible. Since being held at the airport that one time, every time they typed my name upon entry, a scraggly Caucasean male wearing a faded pink (it was probably a red shirt once upon a time) round neck shirt would appear on the computer screen. A Homeland Security Officer once commented, "That can't be you, not even on a bad hair day!".


I was in no hurry to apply for my citizenship because I was content with my permanent resident card. Travel wise, it would have been a huge advantage to have a US passport so I could travel to other countries without having to apply for a visa. But living in DC gave me access to several embassies who were considerate with visas, especially the EU.


Early the following year was election year and Donald Trump being the Republican Presidential nominee was still a far fetched thought. Hillary was still struggling against Bernie Sanders and it was unclear who would be the presidential candidates for both parties. I was still procrastinating with my application for citizenship and did nothing until mid year, when the thought of Donald Trump as president turned from far fetched to a scary possibility. I learned as much by talking to cab drivers (both in DC and NYC) who were registered Democrats but vowed to vote for Donald Trump instead of crooked Hillary (their preference was Bernie). Yes, the cab drivers were the driving force behind my citizenship!


So after returning from a long travel in May, my main agenda was to work on my application. USCIS was quick to respond, even during my application for permanent residency, I received responses almost 2 to 3 weeks after sending in my requirements. After a month from sending my application for citizenship, I did my biometrics which turned out to be a challenge because my fingerprints would not register in the machine and the USCIS staff (who was also an immigrant), had to hold my fingers down on the scanner. Her advise was "next time, do not moisturize!"

After the biometrics, I waited for the notification for my interview. I did not hear from USCIS for a couple of months, which was unusual. By this time, Bernie was out of the race, Hillary was struggling to earn the Bernie supporters, while Trump's divisive rhetoric about immigrants became the trademark of his campaign. Because of this, I read somewhere that applicants for citizenship surged by 32%, a significant spike from 14% in 2015.  Like me, other applicants played it safe and sent in their application just in case Trump ends up being President. Since the current administration was run by a democratic President, there was hope that more naturalized citizens would lead to more voters for the Democratic party. So I held on to the premise that more applicants caused the delays.

Finally, my interview was scheduled in November. I prepared my permanent resident card, my passport, Driver's License and whatever requirements I was supposed to bring with me to the interview. I studied (memorized more like it) all 100 questions and answers in the naturalization test reviewer (History, The Constitution, and the government system). I organized all my requirements in a folder, and placed them on the dining table where I can see it constantly so I won't forget to bring them! I reserved a Zipcar to go to the interview site, and made sure I got the car early enough to drive along I-66 which is notorious for traffic. On the day of the interview, I went to the garage to pick up my Zipcar only to find out that the car was NOT there! Panic time but I had to stay calm while requesting another car for immediate use. Got another car and headed to Fairfax guided by Waze. While driving I was making a mental list of all my requirements and it suddenly dawned on me that my folder did not feel bulky the way it was supposed to. I was four exits away from my interview venue when I decided to pullover at an unknown exit to check my documents. Just as I suspected, my folder did not contain my passport. It was one hour from my interview and I was debating on whether to drive back to DC  and risk being late, or call my husband  so he can bring the passport to me, or just let it go! I took a chance to call my husband on his cellphone, which he never answers. It was also one of those rare moments that he was not travelling for work. He immediately went home to look for my passport. He is usually not good at finding things even if it were right under his nose. But this time, the first thing he saw when he walked in the condo was my passport! He got an Uber and met me at the interview venue. I arrived 20 minutes before scheduled time of 2pm. My husband arrived with my passport at 2:05pm.

We waited about 30 minutes before I was called by the Immigration Officer. I was brought to the interview room where 5 other USCIS staff were waiting. My  interviewer turned out to be a trainee. Another trainee sat next to him behind the desk, and the actual Immigration Officer observed the process. There were two interpreters, one for sign language and the other was an observer.  I was a guinea pig for a new computer software they were testing, which the two trainees were being trained for. So there were a couple of pauses to figure out the new software. It was almost like learning a new version of Microsoft Office where you had to guess where the new tabs were located, if they ever existed! When asked if I were a terrorist, or if I was ever involved in ousting a government, or if I was communist, I had to keep a straight face and look serious. I sensed that my interviewer was trying to do the same (seriously, you actually expect someone to answer YES to these questions?), so we moved on to the next questions as quickly as possible.


At the end of the interview and test, I was congratulated by all 5 USCIS staff for passing, and everyone expressed a sigh of relief that the new software actually worked. I couldn’t help but return the congratulations to my interviewer, which took him by surprise. They laughed and said "it is a good day for all of us!"


The process did not stop there. Shortly before the elections in November, I received notice for the schedule of my naturalization oath ceremony in early December to complete the process. Before then 2016 elections happened! I was glued to the news just as I did in the previous two elections although I was not a citizen back then. The most exciting election was in 2008 when Obama was first elected. I can still remember what I was doing that night. I was putting together a humungous shelfing system in my old apartment. When Obama was declared president, I was torn between trying to lift that huge shelf to its upright position or leave it lying on my living room floor and join the street party on L and 13 street on its way to the White House. I ended up struggling with my shelf!! I settled for the local news which made me feel like I was part of all the street parties going on in the neighborhood. I was so fortunate to be living in DC!


As I watched the elections 2016, I was curious to know if I will become part of another US Presidential history with a first time woman president! I thought about my citizenship and how fortunate I was to become one during the time of the first African American President! In some ways, the 2016 elections was historical but not as joyful as 2008, unless you are a Republican! In the middle of the news coverage, I turned off the TV and instead turned to Facebook to empathize with my liberal Friends whether or not they were US Citizens.


A few days of mourning passed after the elections, and slowly we let reality set it. One morning I received an email from USCIS informing me that my Naturalization Oath Ceremony was rescheduled for 10 am instead of 12 noon. I did not have reason to worry yet but I was surprised that they notified me by email instead of the usual route of USPS and through my USCIS account. Then, another email came a few days after. This time, I was ready to blame Trump big time! Just by looking at the subject heading, I knew it was not good. In all caps and highlighted in yellow, I was informed that my Naturalization Oath Ceremony was CANCELLED, due to "unforeseen circumstances" (it was unforeseen that Donald Trump would be elected President!). I was not in the position to question this so I just let the disappointment sink in and started to think of 101 reasons why it was cancelled. Was this the start of the Alt Right Movement's  "peaceful ethnic cleansing"? Was Donald Trump imposing his stand on immigrants even before he is inaugurated president? Perhaps the new software during my interview was defective and now they are retracting the results of my test and interview!


As November was about to end, I had almost given up on acquiring my citizenship before year end. Perhaps it will be on hold until after the Presidential Inauguration in January. Good grief! However, I received another strange notification through my USCIS account regarding the new schedule for the oath ceremony. Aside from the missing 2nd page with the  important questions that need to be answered on the day of the ceremony, the address of the venue was "somewhere between 7th and 8th St. on Constitution Ave". It might as well be at the "corner of happy and healthy" as Walgreens puts it! I waited to receive the actual notification by snail mail. By this time, USPS was busy with the holiday mail and losing mail was not unlikely. I finally received the actual notification with special invitation for the ceremony, which was to coincide with the 225 years Anniversary of the Bill of Rights, and was to take place at the Rotunda of National Archives Museum on Constitution Ave (between 7th and 8th St!). Wow! I heard about previous special naturalization ceremony from a friend who described it as very formal, they were even served champagne at the reception! According to the National Archives press release, (, President Obama would be keynote speaker. Awesome! But that didn't happen. Instead, we had Goldstar Father/Lawyer/Constitution Advocate Mr. Kizir Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan, give the keynote speech (a very meaningful one at that!). Mr. Khan was made popular by Donald Trump, when the latter criticized the former and his wife after they spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Their son, Capt. Khan served in Iraq but was killed by a suicide bomber. In his keynote speech, Mr. Khan described how he instilled the constitution into the minds of his children, which inspired his son to serve in Iraq. True to form, Mr. Khan took out his pocket size book of the constitution to emphasize that this is part of being a US citizen.


Other special guest speakers during the ceremony were Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Director León Rodríguez. All of the guest speakers were either first generation (in the case of Mr. Khan) or descendants of immigrants to the United States. They had one message, this country that just adopted me, is not of one single race. It is comprised of several individuals of different race, color, culture, and religion that at one point in their lives, came to the US from different parts of the world, for different reasons.  Some sought asylum to escape from a war torn country, or perhaps a harsh government, while some came for work, education, or simply for a better life. Although change of  identity, and giving up your original citizenship that was your identity since birth, and the guilt of having to swear allegiance to another flag and country was part of the process, becoming a US citizen does not make me a "Yankee Doodle" or a "GI Joe" or a "Kano", not with my Asian skin, and black hair.  It definitely did not transform me into a blue eyed blondie! I am now more understanding of people who claim they are Americans, when they look very Asian to me, and the only thing "American" about them is their "ehmereeken" accent. I realized that the essence of becoming a US citizen was knowing and living up to the US Constitution and its laws, at the same time having that freedom and the right to religion, speech, and pursuit of happiness.  Therefore, it would be UN-American, and even UN-constitutional to suppress anyone because of their religious and racial background (and perhaps sexual orientation if that is one way of expressing oneself. According to Madonna - "express yourself.....Vogue!").

Becoming an Asian Gringa
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