The road to American citizenship |

The road to American citizenship

Jerrie K. Lyndon
Aspen Times Weekly
Born in the Soviet Union, the author " who is also an Aspen Times' graphic artist " emigrated to the United States in 1999. Nearly a decade later, she became an American citizen. This illustration by Jerrie K. Lyndon combines a photo of her on the Silver Queen Gondola and her original patriotic painting.

To most Aspenites, Jan. 25 was just another sunny day, a day of no particular national importance. But for 53 Colorado residents, it was a day they had anticipated for years.

Surrounded by family and friends, these 53 people, of different national origins and ages, were sworn into American citizenship ” and into a new life. I was one of them.

It’s hard to say when I realized I wanted to apply for U.S. citizenship. I was born in the Soviet Union, lived in Argentina as a small child, and then moved back to the Soviet Union to find it dissolved and the new governmental structure of Russia emerging. I knew I was Russian, but I could not explain what exactly that meant in the confusing political landscape of the early 1990s.

In a way, I was destined to become a U.S. citizen. One day in middle school English class, we were practicing how to say the months and dates. When the teacher asked me when I was born, I told her my birthday in English. “Fourth of July?” she said to my surprise. “Don’t you know what holiday it is in the United States?” I had no idea; it was just my birthday. The teacher, quickly switching to Russian, told me that the United States offers citizenship to anyone born on the Fourth of July “presumably an urban legend ” and then she added, “What are you doing here?”

At the time, I never imagined hopping continents again and actually using the foreign language I was learning.

When I was 16, however, my mother decided to emmigrate to the States. So, curious about a new life in a new culture, along I went.

I guess the road to citizenship for both of us really started then: the long visits to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), crowded rooms, waiting for your number to flash on the “now serving” screen and plenty of time for reflection on citizenship.

It was also then that I started to truly appreciate those middle school English classes. The process of becoming an American citizen would have been much harder had I not spoken the language. Many of the people sitting next to me in the INS waiting room did not.

The process of applying for U.S. citizenship depends on a person’s circumstance, but the requirements are the same. A person must physically reside in the United States for a continuous period of time; demonstrate an ability to read, write and speak English; show knowledge of U.S. history, government and geography; and have a clean record. The test that every applicant must take comprises 10 questions picked randomly out of 100.

I knew there was no reason for me to fail the test; after living in the States for eight years and taking civics in high school, I was familiar with most of the answers. Still, I was nervous. My grandfather was excluded from the Communist Party in Russia for making a single political joke at a bar, which ultimately led to a lower social status and difficulty getting a good job, or so I heard. Government representatives without a sense of humor intimidate me as well; perhaps it’s genetic. I kept wondering what sort of interviewer I would get.

When test day arrived, my interviewer appeared to be a calm and polite woman. The office was clean and evenly lit, but somehow I felt it was oversized and dark; to me, it seemed there was a bright spotlight directed right at me. So much depended on that moment.

The first question of the interview was: “Who is the president of the United States?” I grinned. After all, who doesn’t know the answer? Then I thought of my grandfather.

“Bush,” I replied, getting signs from the interviewer that she needed more information than that.

“George Bush,” I said, still getting the same reaction.

“George W. Bush? George Bush Jr.?” I replied fast, feeling uneasy.

I really didn’t know if the question was a test of my political affiliation or not, nevertheless, we moved on to the next question.

“What are the benefits of being a U.S. citizen?” the woman asked.

It is no secret that many applicants for naturalization find that a main advantage of being a U.S. citizen is traveling without visas to most popular destinations in the world. Also, being an American citizen allows you to obtain federal jobs and vote in the United States. But there is also the fact of belonging to a country you plan to live in for the rest of your life. This is good food for thought for anyone, not just an immigrant.

After all, what does it mean to be an American? Unfortunately, in some parts of the world, America is thought of as a “Coca-Cola and McDonald’s culture.” Sure, I have Coke with my burger once in a while, but that does not make me American. For me, America is much more than corporate brands, and being an American is more than just consuming those products. In my opinion, America is like the Grand Canyon ” the free space to spread the wings, to dream and to hope for the future as far as the eye can see.

One can have ex-roommates, ex-boyfriends and ex-etceteras. To my list of exes, I must add an ex-country. The United States and Russia do not agree on dual citizenship, so I had to choose.

Yet, can one really say, “I was a Russian yesterday; today I am an American”?

Everyone I know who has become an American citizen keeps the habits and customs of their native lands. The ex-Russians still celebrate 8th of March (International Day of Women), the ex-Italians still prefer soccer to football, and the ex-Cubans still roast a pig for the “Noche Buena.”

The application for naturalization does not require giving up one’s culture, just a loyalty to its government. Cultural assimilation is a completely different, slow-cooking process that takes place with or without a U.S. passport.

As for me, I believe Russian culture will always be a big ingredient in my life. During the first week in March, for example, I made Russian pancakes with raspberry butter and sour cream for my co-workers at The Aspen Times; this was something I took from my grandmother, who did the same for us during Maslenitza (Russian pancake week). And I hope that one day my grandkids will be proud of being a quarter ex-Russian, just like I am proud of the grandfather I never knew for daring to joke with the political system of the Soviet Union.

If you can answer six out of these 10 question, you have passed your interview for American citizenship.

1.) What is the supreme law of the land?

2.) We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years?

3.) What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?

4.) What is the name of the Vice President of the United States now?

5.) If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?

6.) Why did the colonists fight the British?

7.) What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

8.) Name one of the states that borders Mexico.

9.) What is the name of the national anthem?

10.) Why does the flag have 50 stars?