As many of you know, I am an import to the U.S.A.. Or put another way, an immigrant—which these days is a loaded word. Much like the forefathers and foremothers of the majority of Americans, I embarked on a long journey, leaving family and friends far behind, to make a life on these shores. And just last week, after 19 years, I became an American citizen at a swearing-in ceremony in Oakland, CA.. An occasion that left me with a complex set of mixed feelings.
I landed at San Francisco International Airport in the spring of 1998. A job with a high-tech PR firm in hand, I came for the beauty of Northern California, the proximity to sunny beaches and snowy mountains that London couldn’t offer, and the promise of an exciting social life.
This was the era of “Swingers” – the fabulously cool movie about out-of-work actors in LA, starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. Gap ads showed clean cut groovy 20-somethings swing-dancing their way through life in khakis. The dotcom boom was just starting to boom. The internet was spawning crazy businesses left, right and center: Pets.com, Webvan, Pointcast, Google and Supernews. Silicon Valley was the land of opportunity. It was an insanely exciting time in my life and also, an insane time in the history of technology.
When I first got the idea into my head of moving to America—”Just for a couple of years. I need a change”—I was told by friends, and friends of friends, that I would never get a visa. “It can’t be done. My friend tried for years.” Of course, being me, that just made me more determined to show them it could be done.
So I hopped on a plane, had a couple of interviews and was lucky enough to land a job in San Jose with an employer who would sponsor my H1B visa, and find a cool apartment in San Francisco. I didn’t care about the commute. I reasoned that a daily roundtrip of 100 miles was worth it, and so much closer than the 5,000 miles that separated London and San Francisco. I don’t think I ever wanted anything in my life, as much as I wanted to live in SF.
Within a couple of months I was horse-riding after work in Portola Valley, taking swing-dance lessons, working out with a personal trainer at 6am in the morning and getting my nails “done”. (I had never had a mani pedi in my whole life.) None of these were things I could have done in my old life. I reveled in it, and at the same time, as any immigrant will tell you, I missed my people like crazy. I had a photo of my little sister by my bed and every night I would look at it and shed a few tears.
And there were so many things that tripped me up as an outsider in those first few months. Finding myself driving on the wrong side of the street in the path of an oncoming bus. Getting so frustrated at not being able to pump gas. Having to learn to order wine by its grape-type: not just red or white, but Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay (it was the 90s after all). Being 100% clueless about dating American men and the “rules” that I was supposed to follow (come to think of it, I still haven’t figured this out).
Early on, a fellow Brit who had been here for a few years, told me that it would take me at least two years to find my feet. On some level, I wish he hadn’t said that to me because the power of suggestion is everything, but on the other hand, I am grateful, because he set my expectations that establishing a new life in a foreign country doesn’t happen overnight.
In the first couple of years, and because we were all still in our late 20s without the shackles of kids and mortgages, many of my British friends came to visit me. Grateful for a comfortable place to crash in San Francisco, some of them were on ‘world tours’ and wanted to check out my new life. And I loved showing them around. The bar life, the food, the hills and the bay. SF is an entirely seductive place.
Before I knew it, I had gotten engaged, sold my London flat, bought a cute (practically derelict) little house in Noe Valley, had a big English country wedding and a couple of years later was pregnant with Monkey. And then I blinked and I was divorced with a two year old. But I managed it. I managed to renovate my home, get a string of great jobs and raise this little rascal to be a American with strong immigrant roots.
I guess it takes a certain kind of spirit to be not just an immigrant, but a settler too. I had no intention—NONE—of spending 19 years and counting, living in the U.S.A.. I never dreamed that I would become a U.S. citizen and one day “renounce” my birth land. And candidly, if it wasn’t for the craziness of our current government and its constant threats to change immigration law, I might have been happy to hold on to my green card forever. But as the mother of a citizen, it seemed only wise to become one too.
I should mention, that my dad is an immigrant too. He traveled from Hong Kong to the U.K. (Northern Ireland to be precise) at the tender age of 16 to go to school, and then settled in England after graduating from Cambridge as a doctor. I grew up spending summers in Hong Kong, as well as doing the obvious roaming around Europe (Italy, France, that kind of thing).
Having broad horizons is part of the DNA of our family. My sister moved to Hong Kong nearly a decade ago, and one of my brothers has lived in Holland for the last few years. My other brother, who is based in London, is an international airline pilot. I guess we just have roaming in our blood. And Monkey loves his global family and roots, and of course, our travels. I fear, that much as my mum has had to put up with our absence, when he’s old enough, he will be creating a diaspora all of his own.
A word about the process of becoming a citizen
Given that I come from the U.K. and have never committed a felony, the process of becoming a citizen was fairly straightforward. It took about five months all-told, involved fingerprinting, being photographed, studying 100 questions on the history of America, being interviewed and finally being sworn-in during a huge ceremony at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, CA.
Along with 1,074 citizens from 89 countries, we swore our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America for the very first time. It was a fun, warm and welcoming ceremony, hosted by a local representative of USCIS, who just reveled in every moment of his presentation. It was markedly different from the way the immigration authorities typically treat non-Americans, which is frankly hostile. As our host remarked, lining up to enter the theater “is the last immigration line you’ll ever have to stand in.” Hallelujah.
As part of the ceremony, the list of 89 countries being represented is read aloud and we were asked to stand when we heard our country. China (364 people!) and Mexico were by far the best-represented countries.
The tears threatened to come for me, as we spoke the oath and had to renounce our claims to the country we had previously been a citizen of. I am British and there is no getting around that. It’s how I think. Who I am. But, I am also American. America has welcomed me, given me huge career opportunities and a ridiculously comfortable life, and for that, I am grateful.
And in the words of KCBS reporter, Doug Sovern, who gave the keynote speech, I am now “…as American as apple pie—which, by the way, comes from England, and the Netherlands. You are as American as a hamburger—which originated in Germany. You are as American as a slice of pizza“.
This country was built on the sweat, blood and tears of immigrants, and we should never forget that, not even at this scary, protectionist time in this young nation’s history.
I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Sovern for his KCBS radio broadcast. You can find three excerpts here.