Last week, I volunteered to register voters at the swearing in ceremony for new U.S. Citizens. It was conducted in the beautiful LBJ Auditorium on the UT campus, and we witnessed 374 immigrants from over 60 countries be sworn in. It was wonderfully emotional for me and hit very close to home. As families filled the auditorium with cameras and little American flags in hand, I was on the verge of tears throughout the entire ceremony.
I remember when my parents were studying for their citizenship test. My dad printed up little slips of paper with facts and points of history they needed to learn and taped them all over the house – on the bathroom mirrors, on the kitchen cabinet doors, on the refrigerator, etc. If you’ve ever done an online quiz to see if YOU could pass the U.S. citizenship test, you know it’s a pretty hard history test that many native born, multi-generational Americans can’t pass. But citizenship isn’t just passing a test. It’s leaving your home country, learning a new language, starting all over and creating a life for your family where you probably have no built-in support system. It’s not easy.
When I was naturalized in the 5th grade, I came back to school to find a little American flag on my desk. My teacher, Mrs. Wood, asked me how it felt to be a U.S. citizen. At the time, I think I answered, “It feels good.” In my head, I was confused by the question. My family moved to the states when I was 13 months old, so I didn’t know any other country to feel citizenship toward. I wasn’t old enough to know Taiwan as more than where I was born and where my family came from. I took my being an American for granted. I think most Americans take being an American for granted because they don’t know anything else.
As I listened to the speakers address the crowd and the life-changing commitment they were making to this country, things got exponentially clearer what American citizenship means to me. We may complain about our politicians, and we still have PLENTY of things to work on to make our country a place of opportunity for everyone equally, BUT… we all have a say in our government. We have the right to vote that other countries fight and die for. We have the choice and the freedom to practice (or not practice) any religion.
I didn’t know and couldn’t have understood any of this when I was in the 5th grade. But as an adult who chooses to actively participate in my Constitutionally guaranteed rights, I don’t take my citizenship for granted any more.
There is this idea in yoga philosophy called samskaras, which are grooves or paths in life that we repeat. They were explained to me like the grooves in a record that the needle follows over and over again and only get deeper and more permanently set in time if nothing changes. Some samskaras are good, like a morning ritual to start your day off on the right foot for being healthy and happy. And then there are samskaras that are formed out of bad habit, laziness, ignorance or complacency.
When I witnessed those 374 citizens get sworn in and helped many afterward to get registered to vote, it was a clear example of how hard these people worked to break out of their samskaras – what was familiar to them, what felt “comfortable” and habitual – and come to the United States for a new life. I felt so proud of them. I am excited for them. And I know they won’t ever take their right to vote and participate and have a say for granted because they had to overcome so much more to be here.
If you’ve been an American citizen your whole life, I encourage you to witness a swearing in ceremony near you. It’s emotional and patriotic and wonderful. It will restore faith in you that this country is made up of immigrants who WANT to be here and WANT to contribute and WANT to do amazing things. And whether you’re newly naturalized or native born, that experience should move you to examine your own samskaras and effect change and action for the better.