I was 14 in my eight-grade Civics class when I made a decision to be someone I can never, ever be. I told myself I would be the first female Asian President of the United States.
The obstacle was this little green passport issued by the Republic of Korea.
I knew enough basic Civics to know that only a natural-born American citizen can be a POTUS. But I though, maybe, possible, my intellectual excellence, shrewd political skills, and smooth social passion might convince America to tweak the laws a bit.
A hopeless wish, of course. After a few months of dreaming, I switched my ambition once my Civics class coursed down to from the Executive to the Judicial Branch: I decided I was going to be a Supreme Court Justice.
To be honest, those fruitless dreams stemmed primarily from a teenage desire for raw power. I entertained images of me parading in shimmering black robe and pounding gavel, or shaking the hand of the Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and smoking cigars in the Oval Office.
But other than that purely selfish reason, I also had somewhat selfless intentions: I was absolutely besotted with America.
I listened with rapt attention as my Civics teacher discussed the Founding Fathers and their vision to create a land of liberty and justice. I read with enlightened eyes the grand speech in the Constitution, and nodded with agreement over the concept of “checks and balances” between the three government branches.
I truly believed that America created the most perfect governmental system and the most godly country in the world, and I wanted to play a part in it.
That was the same year I moved to America from Singapore. Before that, all I knew about America was from books. I knew that they put jelly (I envisioned gummy worms) in their peanut butter sandwiches and that high school was divided into the “popular” snobs and the “unpopular” nerds.
But I also heard many, many good things about America from my father, who grew up in an American mission school in Korea. He shared how much his heart ached whenever he saw an American family go hand-in-hand to church every Sunday morning. My mother too told me how the grinning, handsome American soldiers always had pocketfuls of candy bars and bubble gum for the kids. Both my parents still salivate over thoughts of cornbread baked from the sacks of cornmeal America sent over while South Korea struggled with famine and poverty.
Through my parents’ tales, the image of America that formed in my mind was that of a kind, wealthy uncle—the kind that has a hearty, jolly laugh, a rich beard, and a full belly that wobbles when he chortles.
Of course, a lot of my perceptions were simple-minded and idealistic. America was not the utopia I thought it would be.
Taking AP U.S. History in high school provided me deeper context into the bedrock of America. I learned that the Civil War isn’t purely a war against slavery. Political parties don’t always champion for the people. U.S. presidents are hugely flawed and not as powerful as I thought they were. Americans aren’t all nice and rich, but are a diverse country of people with economic polarization and ethnic conflict. Americans deal their own set of problems: unemployment, bigotry, poor education, homelessness, broken health care, you name it.
But knowing all facets, positive and negative, of this country makes me appreciate it more. Instead of just blindly admiring it, I realize that living in this country comes with sets of responsibilities and action. Because America is not a perfect nation, that only encourages its citizens to contribute in making it better.
So it’s with a more balanced view of America that I finally became a citizen of the United States yesterday on January 29, 2013.
We all squeezed into hard chairs. It took at least half an hour to pack all of us into seats. The ceremony itself lasted about another half an hour, but the whole process ate up about four hours because of the sheer size of applicants and the bigger size of their guests who came to witness this momentous event.
I sat next to a well-groomed Vietnamese woman and a rotund Mexican man—oops, excuse me. No longer Vietnamese or Mexican; we are all Americans now. Wow.
It was both chilling and warming to sit there that morning. I was literally looking at a snapshot of American diversity. We had black, white, brown and yellow people who were tall and short, chubby and skinny, bald and frizzy-haired, natural blonde and bleached, wrinkled and young, cheerful and somber. Then they played this song, which made me tear up:
After the oath swearing, we all raised the plastic American flag and waved it in the air, while our guests burst into applause and whoops.
If you were born and raised in America, you might not completely understand the heart-tugging and chest-toasting feelings I feel when I hear phrases like “God bless the U.S.A” and “America, Land of the Free.” You might not wholly understand the desperate longing people feel as they make every effort, sometimes illegal ones, to enter this land and be able to utter, “I am an American citizen.”
I feel incredibly blessed to have gone through the naturalization process of becoming a U.S. citizen. It took years to reach this stage, and by the time you get there, you understand what a cherished privilege it is to gain that certificate.
I do feel a little sad that my Korean passport is now obsolete. As someone who spent most of my life out of my Mother Country, that passport was the last remaining mark of my “Koreanness.”
But I love that being an American doesn’t mean abandoning my cultural background at all. I share American values and pledge my allegiance to the American flag, but I still gobble kimchi with my spaghetti and curse in Korean. I can be as American as apple pie, but that pie probably will have a green tea crust and speckles of toasted black sesame.
A big thank you to my beautiful friend Hannah, who endured the hours of waiting with me just to get an Instagram shot of my naturalization:
Hannah, like me, is a naturalized American citizen. Throughout the day, as we toiled in horrible traffic, we gushed about how blessed we are to live in America. Hannah was naturalized as a kid through her parents, so she didn’t get to attend the full oath swearing. I was happy that she got that experience through me.
After the event, we went for dim sum at a Chinese-filled place n a city known as Little Taipei. We sucked seasoned skin of chicken legs, chewed on pig tendons, guzzled scalding pu’er tea, and discussed the linguistic difference between the Mandarin and Cantonese version of “fried rice.” I also got yelled at a dim sum lady to go ask for more fried rice myself.
It was as American as you can get, truly. God bless the U.S.A.