WEDNESDAY, JULY 28th, 1999.
My Citizenship Oath Ceremony was scheduled for 8:00 AM downtown in the Los Angeles Convention Center.
To tell you all the truth, although I *knew* some things about it, had some vague ideas, I really didn't know what to expect. I also wasn't sure how long it would take me to get downtown, since I normally don't go there that time of morning.
Ok, it was early for me. Normally I can collect enough superhuman energy to get up *extra early* for special occasions, but you must remember, this was the week I had started my new job, so my stress levels PLUS exhaustion levels were at their highest, plus my cat had been in the vet emergency hospital for 4 days this past week (don't worry, he is okay now, back home and doing great!) -- in any case, I was not in good shape, let me tell you. Originally I had planned to get up around 5:30 AM at the buttcrack of dawn, but managed to drag myself out of bed at 6:09, feeling like extra-crappy hell. I was literally sick and reeling.
But yes, I had to dress up, and look nice, and all that stuff, especially on such a day.
An aside -- folks in IRC Chat the night before had asked me what kind of outfit I was going to wear for the Ceremony. After all, this is my Wedding Day of sorts, probably the closest I would come to a wedding, in any case :-) in my lifetime -- my Wedding to a Country.
A Commitment. To a whole nation of wonderful people.
I wore a Sari.
Ok, you may think I am weird. Very weird. but then, you all know that already. :-)
Actually, it was not a full Indian Sari (the kind you wrap) -- I wouldn't know how to do that anyway, maybe I need to ask Chiara Shah. *grin*
Anyway, it was a long aqua-blue patterned and beaded tunic and pants, Pakistani style kaftan, but without the gorgeous scarf at the throat. I had gotten the outfit at a regular department store, and it looked pretty good on me (weird things usually look good on me).
I just thought it was funky that an Armenian-Russian is wearing a sari-kaftan to her American Citizenship Ceremony. :-)
Ok, so it took me longer than I anticipated (long hair takes long to dry, and mine is below the waist), and I got out of the house at 7:03 AM, feeling super stressed, and just having a bad feeling about being late.
In Los Angeles, an hour is never enough to get to downtown.
Well, some mischievous deity out there wanted to give me a run for his/her money, and give my nerves a workout, because traffic was crawling along the 101 which became the Hollywood Freeway.
Have you ever felt so trapped that you felt you would burst?
That's how I felt. 7:30 AM and crawling along.... I am getting seriously nervous.... 7:40 AM.... Ok, I am nearing Silverlake, this is only a couple of miles without traffic, but damn....
Thoughts of desperation, wanting to cry. I cannot BELIEVE I would miss my own Citizenship Ceremony.
Stupid idiot. I should've gotten out of bed at 4:00AM, especially since I didn't really sleep the whole night.
7:45 AM.... Soon, the 110 Harbor Freeway exchange.... Smoggy silhouettes of LA downtown in the distance... Overcast day....
A series of denials going through my mind. Systematic desensitization, a psychological trick of trying to imagine the worst possibility and reconciling yourself to it. What if I missed the Ceremony? At worst I would have to reapply.... See, that's not so bad, is it? Hmmmm...
On the car stereo radio, a frantic set of songs is playing, all of them my favorites, but all fast-paced like Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath, ZZ Top, etc... All making me want to jump out of my skin and just run.... to run on the roofs of these stalled crawling cars, the endless stream... I change lanes hopelessly like a desperate flitting butterfly beating against glass...
The downtown freeway exchange, at last! This should normally take a minute! Where do I get off? This is a mess of incorrect streets, all senseless, all numbered.. 2nd, 3rd, 4th street...
Ahead of me, on the other side of the freeway hell, I see the LA Convention Center building! Thank God!!!!!
I change 6 lanes like a Marine commando, crossing over uncrossables, and dodging a million cars, to get off at a street NOW (not the next exit, but NOW, this exit!!!)
I get off, turn here and there, follow some other cars, and then arrive in front of the CC building at 8:01AM. Ok, I'm thinking, with a bit of relief, at this point, if that makes me late, I'll get in somehow.
I see other people in cars who look like immigrants all trying to stampede the parking lot. They are ALL LATE, like me!
And their number is legion!
Relief really sinks in....
Cars start to do chaotic merges crossing lanes, to get into the parking lot line, and I let an Indian-looking woman merge in front of me. Then we turn past guards into the CC underground parking.
8:06 AM... Hmm, wonder if they are gonna start the Ceremony punctually on the dot, or will they wait for stragglers?
It's a melee. I hand exact change, 7 dollar bills to the attendant, and ask which way to Citizenship, and he points, and says, "You cannot miss it, just go upstairs."
Meanwhile little groups of immigrants are running aimlessly through the parking lot, some walking rapidly, some pushing wheelchaired elders, all nicely dressed, all stressed, all carrying familiar-looking envelopes from INS containing their notices.
Meanwhile, I am still crawling along stuck in a snake line of cars, all of us being directed by guards to parking spots. Finally I park where I'm told, get out of the car, and just follow the growing stream of foreign people all headed in the same general direction.
We walk up some stairs, and then a long corridor stretches, with occasional huge signs saying NATURALIZATION followed by arrows...
Some people begin to run, and I run too, and my heart is racing, and I am thinking, ok, I am just gonna have a stroke right here and now from stress, and from running, and I think, just keep going, this is a marathon, and I am gasping for breath, holding on to my purse, in my Sari, and in dress shoes.... I see some real saris on some women ahead of me, and again think, ok, I am weird, why am I wearing this? But what the heck...
There's more and more people. Moving fast. Finally, we emerge at the Center area that has a food court on one side on the second floor, like a mall, and has escalators and elevators to go down.... And then I glance down....
There's an OCEAN of people. They are standing in a line that is as thick as a parade -- think of a Marathon crowd -- and it stretches out through the front doors of the Convention Center, and though the glass windows you can see them going around the block....
The people in wheelchairs are allowed to enter ahead, but all the rest of us are told to take the escalators or stairs down, and get in the line....
We race down, in a mob now, thousands of people.
Yes, I am NOT kidding you, thousands.
I am tall, so I can see above the crowd, and I find myself racing past Voter Registration areas. I see glimpses... The Green Party, Democrats (I make note of their location so that I can come down afterwards and Join the Donkeys ;-) others, people handing out cards, soliciting for various propositions, etc...
I find myself outside, and I walk quickly to the end of the line around the corner of the block. Here I soon strike up conversations with others, and we stand waiting.
Imagine a line to ride a popular rollercoaster at Magic Mountain. Ok, take that line and thicken it, expand it into a riverbed stream of humanity.
However, the line is moving surprisingly fast. Maybe because we are not here to ride little cars, but are all getting into the great Convention Hall...
Seeing that many people had filled out theirs, I fill out the back of my INS notice, and sign it, as I am standing in line.
Reading the questions...
Hmm, no, I have not been arrested, nor have I engaged in bigamy since my interview... ;-)
I mark everything "no" and then sign and date the bottom. At this point I find myself inside the glass doors, again walking past the political party booths, and getting to go up the escalators.
Mind blurring. I am reminded of "To Serve Man" as the crowds of innocent earthlings file like fattened calves into the aliens' spaceships, not knowing what lies for them on the other side...
We joke that we're all gonna be lined up and shot once we enter the doors upstairs. People are giggling nervously. We share our Citizenship process stories. One old man says he has been struggling for 2 years, I say mine has took me over 3 years to get to this point.
We ride the escalators and end up on the top floor, and then a guard asks, "Eight o'clock appointments, yes? Then go to the right. The rest of you stay back."
So I find myself entering the doors of the Hall where the Naturalization Ceremony is to take place.
There are THOUSANDS of people seated in the great hall. Up on the front near the podium, are some officials. Up on top hangs a huge United States Flag. Chairs are filling the auditorium, and there are few empty rows left.
To the right, against the wall are signs with numbers hanging over tables with INS workers, and people are all over the place.
We are herded in by guards, and there is some taped off area beyond which is a crowd of relatives who are not allowed to go any farther into the hall, but they can stand and snap photos of us as we pass.
I glance and see familiar INS officers! Yes, those same people I remember from the Federal Building. Officer So-and-So who handled my mom's case is here too, walking around in a suit and with a walkie talkie like many others. I don't get a chance to say "hi" to him because I am carried away by the momentum of the crowd.
A guard tells us to go sit down in neat rows -- kind of like at graduation ceremonies, where you go in and turn to your right, fill a row and sit. I end up toward the far back of the auditorium hall.
The chairs all have booklets and brochures on them, one white one called "The Power of Citizenship" about voter registration and which briefly explains the different political parties. Another booklet is blue with a flag on the front, and is called "A Welcome to U.S.A. Citizenship."
This one has patriotic information like the Pledge of Allegiance, "Rules for Saluting the Flag," "The Star Spangled Banner," "American's Creed," "The Meaning of American Citizenship," "The Duties of a Citizen," "Rights and Privileges of a Citizen," the actual "Oath of Allegiance," "The Five Qualities of the Good Citizen," the words of the song "America," and the text of the Declaration of Independence, followed by the Constitution.
In the end there are blank pages for notes and congratulations, memories of the occasion and even room for newspaper clippings on the very last page.
There also small plastic American flags on every chair.
We pick up the brochures and the flags, and sit down.
Some Asian folks snap pictures. I regret not having film in my camera that I had grabbed with me. Drat! (As a consolation, I'll take pictures at my mom's ceremony!)
The speaker says "Good Morning" and we echo "Good Morning" and he talks about obtaining passports, and that we must all get our INS notices OK'd at the tables near the wall.
He tells us there is 6 thousand people at this 8:00 AM ceremony. Actually it is nearly 9:00 AM by now, but there are still crowds filing in. At 3:00 PM, he tells us, there will be another 6 thousand people that will be "processed." And yesterday was another 6 thousand people!
Meanwhile I have gotten a voter registration form from someone and am filling it out. I think for a moment... consider the American Independent party, the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom... And then say, "Naaah." Might as well join a party that is big and make some difference in it, from within. :-)
So I check the Democratic Party box.
The person at the podium tells us to hold off signing the voter registration, until after the Oath when we're officially Citizens, since it is illegal to profess to vote before that.
Meanwhile, a guard tells our whole row to get up again, and head out to any of the numbered tables against the right wall, and have our INS notices and Green Cards ready.
I walk up to a random table # 047 for luck and hand my notice to the woman INS officer. She glances at it briefly, and marks it with an OK where the letter "K" looks like an "R." She also scrawls a mysterious 3 digit number which I recognize as the last part of my Alien Registration number.
Oh lovely, I think neurotically. Everyone else has a simple OK on theirs, I got an "OR." Does that stand for "Outta here, Right now?"
I am being silly, I know.
The other scary thing is that I surrender my Green Card up to her, forever. And the INS officer takes it and puts it in a plastic baggy next to her that looks like a trash bin...
I really feel naked now, without my Green Card...
Finally, I get back in line, holding on to my "OR"ed INS notice, and we head out like moo-cattle around the front near the podium, and back again, and are finally seated back in the same general area we came from.
We wait another 20 minutes seated, while we are informed we are waiting for the Judge.
Eventually, the Judge arrives, and words are pronounced that "magically turn" the Hall into a Court of Law.
We are told to rise for the Honorable ____. I get up with everyone. Then we sit back down, and the Judge calls us to order.
Another person, a woman says something about presenting the people gathered here before the court as potential Citizens.
The Judge says the motion is granted.
Then another man speaks, and the woman speaks again (my mind is getting muddy here...) I don't remember what they said very well, since my memory has the odd slippery quirk of slipping out like short term bits of water spilling past my attention span. (Maybe I have ADD, I often wonder-- this is a prime example of me not remembering major things that matter).
Anyway, we are told what a privilege it is to be admitted as a Citizen, and that the speaker did it the easy way, by being born here, while we have actually EARNED our right to be, so we should be proud of ourselves.
Our lives will be different from this point on, a new stage has begun for all of us.
Some statistics are told us -- the top five countries of origin for the 6 thousand gathered here today are in reverse order, from the countries of Philippines, San Salvador, Iran, Honduras, and finally number one, Mexico. People cheer.
Up in the front where the handicapped section is, there is also a special section for members of the Armed Forces. These soldiers are honored by being named individually.
Finally we are told to rise for the Oath, raise our right hand, and repeat after the speaker.
I rise, feeling like this is it, the moment. :-)
The Oath is spoken slowly, broken down into easy chunks of difficult words like "heretofore" and "potentate" and "sovereignty."
Everyone stumbles a bit.
It is somewhat scary, to renounce anything "absolutely" in favor of another thing.
We are done. :-)
"Congratulations," says the speaker, "You are now all United States Citizens."
We cheer and wave the little flags.
Then we are told to sit down. The lights dim in the hall, and we are given a brief slide show of clips of America. Meanwhile the song plays "...Well I'm proud to be an American, but at least I know I'm free...."
I forgot who sings that song.
But it gets me weepy.
I am glad it's dark, and I wipe my face continuously, and try not to start bawling.
Finally it is over, the lights come on slowly, and everyone cheers and claps again, and waves the flags.
Then we are told to "go out there and be responsible Citizens..."
We rise again, and put our hands against our hearts and we say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.
Funny. :-) I know this one by heart. I had to say it in elementary school when we first came to the US!
Afterwards, an African American man sings the Star Spangled Banner as we stand.
I want to sing along, but I am embarrassed, since no one else really is. (This is not supposed to be a duet, but a solo or a chorus, you know. ;-)
Finally, we are told to sit back down, some more passport info is handed out, and people collect our filled out voter registrations.
I can now legally sign my VR form and hand it in.
I'm now a Registered Democrat. :-)
In the very last, we are told to get up, and go to the tables on the right (numbered according to the 3 digit ending of our Alien number) to pick up our Certificates of Naturalization.
Again, we do this in rows, and it takes at least 20 minutes.
I get up to the table, and recognize the officer who handled my case, which makes sense that he would have my Certificate. He takes my INS notice, and then looks through his file, and gives me my Naturalization Certificate.
"Congratulations," he says, "You can sign it later at home."
The Certificate looks impressive. It has a embossed seal, and a gold seal, and it has other neat things. It also has an ugly photo of me in a 3/4 turn to show my ear (which I had done for the original N-400 application), so that's a bummer. I will look like an Ugly Citizen forever. :-)
But at least my name change went through correctly! They took out the "George" wrong middle name which is my dad's name, and was mistakenly added as a patronymic or middle name to my name in the green card! I have no middle name, and now the law affirms it!
I am Vera Nazarian!!!
As it should be. :-)
I take my Certificate, thank the officer, and head out once again around the front, near the podium, where I say "thank you" to the Judge briefly, like many others.... Not that he'd hear me from the crowd. :-)
Finally, I exit the Hall.
In the front near the escalators, political party reps come out after us, while I see another OCEAN of people gathering for the afternoon ceremony. :-)
Someone asked me if have registered to vote...
And for the first time in my life, I nod "yes," with a smile. I have always hated having to say "no, not a citizen," in supermarkets and other places when asked that question.
I ride up the escalator, then go over to the food court, get a slice of veggie pizza and an iced tea, and have my early lunch at 10:30. AM.
Then I go to a public phone, call up my mother, and tell her about the Ceremony. I feel giddy!
Then I go the bathroom, then find the way out of the convention center, wander the parking lot looking for my jeep, find it, get in, drive away, and navigate the downtown freeways to drive to work.
To make an already loooong story shorter, I arrive at my new job by noon, with my flag and Certificate and all. :)
My nice new boss gets to hear this story....
Fast forward the rest of the afternoon at my new job...
And here I am. :-)
I had my dad take pictures of me in my sari and with the flag tonight. As soon as I get them developed, I will post one for everyone. :-)
So you'll get a perfectly complete picture of me on my Citizenship Day. :-)
Now, to bed!!! :-)