by John Chae

“Good one W., I couldn’t have said it better,” I mutter to myself as I admire the recycled  White House letter paper and try to decipher the President’s signature.  Z w Bee, is what the scribble most closely resembles.  The Naturalization Ceremony Hall, in which I am reading this letter, is in the Fallon Federal Building in downtown Baltimore.  Contrary to its grand name, the hall looks like it was modeled after the local YMCA recreation room.  Four to five rows of fold-up chairs take up the bulk of the carpeted area.  The chairs are directed towards a wooden podium set in front of an American flag and to the left of this is a beige plastic fold-out table behind which stand three cheerful women who are congratulating the new citizens for their decision in joining team America.  The walls are loosely decorated with oddly placed, and rather distasteful, red, white, and blue ribbons.  Of which there aren’t nearly enough of and whose arrangement puts this attempt to shame when compared to even your most average Veteran’s day party.  Like most things in Baltimore, the ceremony hall seems to be underfunded.

Somehow, none of this is bothering anyone participating in the ceremony, except for the critical art student sitting in the corner, whose ostentatious style clearly indicates his fine refinement in anything aesthetic -yours truly.  As you may have already suspected, because of my more than competent handling of the English language, the warm words of President Bush aren’t meant for me.  I am here merely as a guest of a friend, for whom this momentous event,  along with about forty-something other newly naturalized citizens, this ceremony is in honor of.  But being an Asian-American myself  I hardly stand out from this hodgepodge, or hot pot, of races and accents; the variety of which made for the most memorable recital of the Pledge of Allegiance I’ve ever heard.  A medley of Chinese, Eastern European, Australian, Korean, Indian, African and Hispanic accents filtered in with my own lifeless, nasally American drawl.  At the end of the pledge, I swear I heard a few Amens.
Presently, I yawn under the fluorescent lights, put down the letter, and listen to W. address his new subjects via cutting edge mobile orating technology, aka a DVD player connected to a TV on wheels.  When I heard one of the ladies leading the ceremony announce that the President himself would be giving a speech, I got myself ready for a laugh.  I guffaw condescendingly in my head as W. begins to speak, more out of habit really; he hasn’t actually said anything ridiculous or stupid.  In fact… his words, “Our country has never been united by blood or birth or soil,” are rather heartwarming, and for the first time the “Fellow” in “Americans” feels genuine.
Even as the cynic inside of me snorts “Fascist!” the anarchist yells, of course, “Anarchy!” and the nihilist groans “Ze vorld is undone,” I find myself brushing them aside.  I hold my hand up rejectingly to my normal entourage of countercultures, who at the sight of Bush have crowded around me, and seek out the source of moaning coming from the deepest most blasphemous regions of my soul.  I paw through the darkness and find that the source is my inner patriot, muffled and tied up in a corner, just as I left him years ago.  I brush the dust from his face, rip the tape off of his mouth, and give him an awkward apologetic pat on his shoulder.  It seems that solitary confinement has numbed him, nearly sapped the life out of him.  He looks up at me and weakly tells me to look around.  I look around the naturalization ceremony hall, and what I find are smiles.  Not smirks or grins, but real smiles.
The speech ends, the heavyset lady named Linda gets up and turns the television off.  I find myself smiling.  I scratch the back of my head and wonder why I’m suddenly filled with ambivalence, especially from words spoken by George W. Bush.  The anti-Christ who beat out of me any feelings of patriotism and sent me packing to join the ranks of my generation’s apathy.  Perhaps its the general gaiety in the air around me, after all, these new citizens have waited at least five years for this opportunity.  But I don’t think I’m suffering from an osmosis of pride in country.  Rather, something has stirred inside of me.  The patriot has emerged from the darkness, bashful but present.  Something that my landlord said to me a few weeks previous pops into my head.  He described America as, “The Great Social Experiment.”  He is a naturalized citizen himself and he said these words with real conviction.
At the advice of the patriot, I look around again and I see before me a microcosm.  One filled with people from all over the world, enthusiastic, optimistic, and united under this new privilege, whether or not this is actually how the new citizens feel I’m not sure, but this is how I want to see them.  I’ll remember this moment as one in which I’ve witnessed multiculturalism that isn’t forced or just a politically correct cosmetic exteriority.  A moment in which I’ve remembered how important this country really is.  Not in a militaristic or economic way, but in a social way.  It is a country where people willingly come everyday.  For whatever reasons, they are joining the rest of America in taking part in the world’s truly most important social experiment.  An experiment that needs to succeed so that we as humans can really know we are not governed by self-interest and paranoia but a yearning to accept and be accepted.  It’s an experiment that needs to prove that the grandest of ideals, “an unfolding promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, and that no insignificant person was ever born,” isn’t just a lie or fluffy naivety.
Skip ahead a few weeks to November 4, 2008.  I can confidently say I’m cured of my jaded cynicism, for now, and not just optimistic, but enthusiastic.  Barack Obama not only represents a respect for difference in our country, but a celebration of it.  He represents an overcoming of fear and xenophobia, a rethinking of globalization, or, as Richard Kuisel puts it, coca-colonization, and an America that sees itself in the immigrant.  I think back to the microcosm of new citizens, while looking forward to Obama’s presidency, and I feel hopeful.  There’s still no obvious single answer as to what direction we should point the arc of history in hope for a better day, and there’s still a lot to be unhappy about in this country (other than the economy).  But Obama’s election was proof that change is possible.  For me, it starts at MICA, and our microcosm here.

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