Friday, June 12, 2009

Identity

I walked to my swearing-in ceremony in the persistent fog on Friday morning, wearing demure black.

There are no pictures from inside the massive courtroom, or of the hundreds of hushed faces in every shade from biscuit to chocolate truffle (at whose stories I could only guess), because cameras and cellphones were confiscated at the entrance.

I was ready for the great emotion, but it didn't come. And what has come, is unexpected.

After hearing the white-haired guard bark at the Indian-looking man ahead of me at the Xray machine (metal detector, OK, fine): WHAT part of wait do you not understand??? And after I'd fixed him with an intense scrute* (his guard-mate noticed my scrute, and I noticed him noticing, and continued to scrute, and felt I was making progress, but then I had to go through.

[*Chris Langham, Muppet Show: I scrutinized him with an intense scrute...]

So I went in well balanced. Welcome to the U.S. You are now part of the problem. The same guard smiled and sweethearted me and complimented me on my "good shoes" *($40 four years ago) that made the machine beep and told me to come and get my cellphone and camera straight from him afterwards, ahead of the crush.

All animals are equal. I was a more equal animal.

After many hours, some snafus and anxiety (my photos had been lost and I was sent back to Federal Plaza without the certificate that everyone else had, to have new ones glued to my certificate waiting there) and much boredom on the part of the four gum-chewing officials, I was in. I am an American.

It feels more complicated, and sad, than I had imagined. I am not at the root of it yet.

Maybe it is because I am no longer the outsider I have spent most of my life being; a role in which I felt very comfortable: it is a position of objectivity and one of remove. From which one can participate or criticize or celebrate without obligation. Even as I loved so many things American: music, friends, National Public Radio (!), I was safely South African. I could take the good and reject the bad. It wasn't mine. But now, instead of feeling lighter, I feel heavier. Belonging comes with a burden.

And maybe it is because of the South African blood flowing in my veins? For all my liberalism, and worldliness, I have a strong streak of cultural pride and association. Soil, sky, intonation. A language. Where do I want my bones to rest? I feel like I sold out.

And yet there is nothing in blood. It is in the head. Or is it? Perhaps we are vibrate instead with landscape - with the geology and botany of our birthplace. Why does my heart beat faster and my blood begin to sing  in the rolling grasslands of the Free State, a place I have not lived in since childhood?

And maybe because it simply raises questions of identity so ingrained as to be unconscious. Now bubbled to the surface and steaming in the cool Brooklyn air.

Do you know who you are?

In the end I know that I did what thousands, millions, have done, and for the same reasons: I became American in order to have a better, and easier, life.

And, with time, I will come to terms with that, as my life becomes better, and easier.

(And as long as I am not a Communist, a prostitute, or an habitual drunkard...)

16 comments:

  1. Marie, I had wondered how you would feel after the official deed was done. I can relate to what you have shared with us and appreciate it greatly. Being born in Hawai'i prior to statehood, I think I understand the feeling you have of being "other" while still being part of the "American" lifescape. I have, to this day, very mixed -- and sometimes irreconcilable -- feelings about my own citizenship.

    I hope that you and Beence are together soon for good, and that your South African heart is soothed.

    Keli'i

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  2. I have not relinquished my birthright, though I have now lived more than half my life away from my country.Weird? Perhaps, but I remain the same person.
    I hope that your pathway will now be a comfortable one.At least, now, no longer a solo one. Congrats to you and Beence.

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  3. There's no changing where you were born and grew up...that's an integral part of who you are. But now you have something new in addition...you're a U.S. citizen. As a nation of immigrants, your story is a very familiar one, even though also uniquely yours. Hope that whatever else it means, it will mean that you and Beence will be able to be together soon!

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  4. That's a moving target, isn't it -- knowing you who you are?

    I think it's never the moment that signals the change that makes the change. Living the change -- resting in it, fighting it, becoming it, rejecting some parts, embracing others -- is what makes the difference. And, surely, it's no simpler to be South African than what you imagine it is to be an American?

    One of my students had a rambling upbringing as the daughter of a diplomat. Since she had lived in so many places during her formative years, I asked her if there were a place she thought of as "home." She said that her parents taught her that home is something you carry within you.

    As has been said elsewhere, in the mansion there are many rooms. It's still one mansion.

    Welcome, Marie, to the ever-unfolding process of what is to be American. I was born here, and, yes, with the many rights come many responsibilities, but only some of them are burdens. You'll see.

    much love,
    Melanie

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  5. A very touching post and very kind, equally touching comments.

    The incorrigible optimist that I am stands humbled by such things. I tend to live my life from the inside out and too often forget that the outside loves to sneak in and wreak havoc of our emotions without any logic.

    Your life is scheduled to become better and easier next month and a steady stream of freshly fetched morning croissants are inbound along with the best dishes cleaning skills in the galaxy and a secret flan recipe.

    It doesn't get any better than this. :-) xxx

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  6. I can relate to what you describe, completely. and yay! morning croissants and spit pot dishes and secret flan.

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  7. OK so I havn't cried. My lenses are intact. I understand the analysis of your feelings about all this - where was the big moment? Maybe it will come. Actually it doesn't really matter.
    Marie/Beence (+ Don Es ect) will soon be a unit, geographically. I know that for the rest of your life, there will be a lump in your throat when you see Table Mountain, or travel Route 62 in the Klein Karoo - or see our Y-front Rainbow Flag raised up and brave. Not Poor Hen anymore. Happy Hen

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  8. Life is an adventure, with many twists and turns. The long and winding road. It makes me happy to know that you two who live on 66 square feet, (one wooman and one feline), will soon be joined by the man. Who we are, our labels, our spirits, our essence is best worked out over candlelit dinners, or over a mug of something hot and a croissant. Wishing you many days ahead, full of discovery and joy and fun.

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  9. Congratulations.

    The moment is never the moment.

    The US needs good people as much as everywhere else. Score one (then two) for America!

    No more limbo.

    Welcome.

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  10. I feel a bit ashamed of having been so maudlin'...Thank you, very kind friends, for tolerance towards the long howl that rose from the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone...

    And Mommy and Centvingt - xxxxxxxx
    Maybe we can all eat croissants together this year.

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  11. Lovely, thoughtful post. Nothing is simple, is it? Maybe you can approach this from the Obama point of view: You are a citizen of the world.

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  12. Not maudlin. These big changes are always a mourning of the thing changed as well as a celebration (one hopes, a celebration) of the new state.

    The sense of loss is an important part of the cascade of feelings flooding in. It's often left unremarked upon -- I should be so purely happy! -- so it feels like it should be discounted or dismissed. It shouldn't. It matters.

    The Sondheim lyric "Everything's different. Nothing's changed." keeps floating through my mind.

    go well.

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  13. Ek's bly jy is so ver. En die innerlike konflik maak totaal sin.

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  14. Congratulations on your citizenship. I am American, but living in Japan. I know that the USA is going through so many rough times now. (So is Japan and every other country!) But maybe people like you are part of the solution. I think the great thing about being American is that you can also still be South African, or Mexican, or Chinese. Where you live--NYC--certainly proves that.

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  15. my g/f & i just returned from her native country, germany. this last trip she was very confused about her identity. coincidentally, this was her 1st trip back after becoming a citizen of this rogue nation. i will ask her if this new status affected her on this trip.

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  16. Pam J - thank you. I just deleted my way too long answer :-)

    jvdh - so ver in the proses, of so ver...van mense soos julle wat my neuroses nie in person wil beleef nie ? Heheh. Dis die blond dis die blou, ens. Dis al.

    Thanks David. In itself, New York is perhaps the kindest country of all....

    Donna. Ha! Well, no boom chaka at all at our ceremony. Your g/f lucked out with that one! I ahev applied for passport. We'll see what happens when it arrives.

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