Paraphrasing the glorious movie, Avalon
I came to America in 1974.
Tomorrow, April the 12th, is the thirty-fourth anniversary of the day I flew to Los Angeles for a television job, and never lived in Canada again. I’m grateful to this country for allowing me to follow my dream, and fulfill it far beyond my expectations – my expectations being to fail and go home. I did better than that. I appreciate this country for providing me the opportunity.
Despite those appreciative feelings, it took me twenty-five years to become an American citizen. I never meant it to take twenty-five years. I meant it to take eighteen years.
Why did it take so long? Because. That’s why. This subject is a little unnerving for me. I’ve learned it’s hard to say anything negative – or even questionable – about this country without somebody reaching for a rope. Cut me some slack here, will ya?
Canadians have strong feelings about Americans. If I became an American, they’d have those feelings about me, and, more importantly, so would I.
What kind of feelings? Okay, try this. Imagine you’re a person, making a reasonable living, driving a perfectly fine car, owning a modest but comfortable home…
…and you live next door to Donald Trump.
That’s Canada, living next to the United States.
Americans, in general, appear to have little interest in other countries – including countries situated right next door – and it shows. I once saw an op-ed commentary in the L.A. Times entitled, Why Canadians Hate Americans. The commentary was datelined: Ottawa. And they spelled Ottawa wrong. They spelled it “Ottowa.”
You didn’t have to read past the dateline. Canadians hate Americans – “hate” is too strong a word for Canadians, it’s more like they’re “ticked off”, eh? – Canadians are ticked off at Americans, because they – “they” exemplified by one of their country’s most prominent newspapers – aren’t interested enough to learn how to spell the name of our nation’s capital.
“I mean, come on, eh? Give a care.” (That’s a Canadian talking.)
I’m giving you this general outline of Canadians’ opinion of Americans to help you understand eighteen years of foot-dragging when it came to my becoming an American citizen. Just because we speak the same language, and watch the same TV growing up, and even though I probably know more American history than I do Canadian history – The Alamo, 1836 – The Battle of New Orleans, “In 1814, we took a little trip…” – it’s still not easy to make the move.
Then, suddenly, in 1992, the impulse hit me like the impulse for Motherhood hits childless women in their thirties. Suddenly, I urgently wanted to become an American. Some of it had to do with my having an American wife and a daughter who was born and growing up here, and I wanted a voting say in the country she’d be living in.
Some of it was practical. I was working, raising a family and paying taxes down here. All I did in Canada was visit once a year, on the week when it wasn’t cold. In fact, though not officially, I was already an American.
Also playing a part in my decision was that, in 1992, a president had been elected who… well, he let me down later, but at the time, he looked like a Commander-in-Chief I could cheerfully salute.
Put it all together and I was finally ready.
I filled out the paperwork, assembled and submitted the necessary documents, and applied for an appointment for my interview. At the interview, I’d be asked a number of questions about the workings of the American government. I was given a booklet to study to prepare for it, a Driver’s Manual for Citizenship.
I start to study.
“How many members are there in the United States Congress?”
Five hundred and thirty-five.
“Who succeeds the President if he can no longer perform his duties?” (It was like Miss America.)
The Vice President.
“And if the Vice President can no longer perform his duties?”
The Speaker of the House of Representatives.
While I’m studying for my test, I’m also pondering. I’m a ponderer, I can’t help it. What I’m pondering is the idea of what exactly it means to become an American citizen.
Woody Allen once quipped that if you wanted to become a Jew, you had to go through two thousand years of retroactive persecution. What Woody was saying was that, by changing teams, you’re not just taking on the good stuff, you’re buying the entire package. It’s not a matter of pick-and-choose; it’s all or nothing.
What comprises the “entire package” when you choose to become an American? What, as an American citizen, would I now be personally accountable for? Well, let’s see:
Wiping out the Indians?
“Blowing up two Japanese cities with people in them.”
Sure, America’s a ton of great stuff too – the polio vaccine and Snickers bars are only two examples – but it’s also the above list. If you choose to sign on, you’re accountable for the entirety of American history. The good, and the aforementioned.
Throughout my life to that point, I was always “Us” and Americans were always “Them.” How would it feel to become part of “Them”, only “Them” wouldn’t be “Them” anymore; “Them” would be “Us”, and “Us” would mean me?
What would it mean not be a Canadian anymore? Would I still be allowed to sing “O, Canada”? Could I continue to root for the Leafs and the Blue Jays? Had I lost my Canadianly-endowed right to say “Sohrry” and “abowt?”
There was a lot to think about.
And then, my Interview Day arrives. I show up at the Federal Building, dressed in my best sports jacket, shirt, tie and a pair of very serious shoes, the kind generally reserved for wearing to synagogue. I could be married in those clothes. In a way, I was. I was marrying a country.
I walk into the room, hand in my “Notice of Appointment” and I sit down and wait. I look around at my fellow citizenship applicants. People from various countries pack the Waiting Area, though the majority of applicants are Asians, quietly conversing with family members in their native tongues. No one is speaking English Arrogant idiot that I am, I wonder how they’ll do on the test.
The official manning – or it this case womaning – the Appointments Desk is calling my name. I feel a nervous flutter as I walk across the room, ready for my cubicle assignment, where another official will administer my test.
“Mr. Pomerantz,” the Immigration Official intones coldly, “It appears that you’ve presented yourself here on the wrong day. Today is Wednesday. Your appointment was for Monday.”
“You’re here on the wrong day.”
She hands me the notification letter I had handed her when I arrived. I read it, my hands trembling. The Immigration Official is right. I have shown up for my Citizenship Interview on the wrong day.
In a flash, Asian-inflected whispers fly around the room, sounding to my Occidental ears like,
“Long day.” “Long day.”
I race out, a quivering wreck of humiliation and shame.
My wife’s the psychologist in the family, but it doesn’t take a Freudian psychoanalyst to explain what had happened. By missing my appointment, I had made a deliberate, though unconscious, mistake. Clearly, I was not yet ready to commit myself to becoming an American.
Seven years later – hoping that, by then, all the officials who had witnessed my humiliation had moved on – I re-applied for citizenship, submitted to my interview, and passed. For my second try, I had contracted the services of an immigration lawyer. Not to help me with the paperwork – I could handle that myself – but to drive me to my appointment on the right day.
A few months later, along with thousands of others, I convened at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and was sworn in as an American citizen. I was unexpectedly moved by the proceedings. Even the cheesy stuff, like the videotaped jet “fly-over” on a small TV screen, as Lee Greenwood sang, “…And I’m proud to be an American...” I have to admit, there were tears.
I had now jumped through all the hoops. But I wondered if I was really an American. I still wasn’t sure. How was “being an American” supposed to feel?
On September the 12th, 2001, I was talking to my Canadian friend, Alan, on the phone about the tragedy of the day before. Alan’s response to the situation was this:
“Boy, you guys must have really pissed somebody off.”
I felt a sudden flash of anger at my friend’s response. That’s when I knew I had crossed over. “Feeling like an American”? It felt like that.
It caught me by surprise. I had become a “Them” without even knowing it.