Celebrating the Gift of American Citizenship

Sometimes I get discouraged about trends in American culture and politics. But recently, I was privileged to be a part of a U.S. citizenship celebration that pierced my cynical armor and helped me remember that it is good to be an American.

Arwa, a middle-aged Jordanian immigrant, brought a feast to the adult English language learners’ (ELL) class where I tutor. She had just passed her American citizenship test, and she wanted to celebrate with her classmates and teachers.Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 10.53.18 AM

Learning English is hard. Every time students open their mouths, they’re likely to mispronounce a word, mix up the tense of a verb (I has a cold), mangle an idiomatic expression (We make party for my son), or be misunderstood because their accents are so heavy. They’re subject to constant corrections. To succeed, students have to be thick-skinned and persistent.

Steve, who teaches the class where I volunteer, sets a supportive tone. He leads the students in cheering and clapping for each other. They understand each other’s embarrassment, so they are encouraging and kind—no mocking.

We are teaching American culture as well as language, so we try to foster acceptance of other people’s customs, too. Steve sets up teams so African, Central American, Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European students must interact with each other and take part in playful competitions.

So when Arwa passed her citizenship test, it was natural for her to celebrate with her classmates. The other students know how hard it is to persist. Everyone is far from home and misses their family, their food and customs from home, and the ready access to people who understand their worldview. They understand what it means to let go of allegiance to a homeland and embrace a new country.

Sharing food is the language we all understand, so Arwa brought chicken shawarma, homemade hummus, lemon yogurt from scratch, little buns with a Middle Eastern version of pesto, salad, brown bread, and banana chocolate chip bread. She also had chunks of ham, salami and bologna as well corn chips, snack crackers, flour tortillas and soda.

I worried briefly about how her classmates would respond to the food. Some eat meat, some don’t. Some eat pork, some don’t. The only hiccup was that we didn’t have forks. I watched Arwa spoon yogurt onto the bread so I put a dollop of yogurt onto a piece of tortilla. Soon the other students caught on and did the same. The North Africans (from Liberia, Somalia, Kenya, Egypt) recognized and relished the food. The Thai and Hmong students sampled more carefully, but were complimentary. The Hispanic students (from Mexico, Cuba, and Ecuador) spooned food into the tortillas and rolled them up. Everyone complimented Arwa on the food and thanked her. We all clapped and cheered for her because she is a citizen now.

Throughout the spontaneous party, Arwa beamed. She is so proud to be an American citizen. I don’t know whether economic opportunity, war, love, or religious freedom (Islam is the majority religion in Jordan and she wears a necklace with a silver cross) brought her here with her husband and two children. It’s not the sort of thing we ask about in class.

One time I helped her study for the citizenship test. I’m sure many native-born Americans would struggle with the test, and at times, I wasn’t always sure of the answers. She told me that she’d been studying for three years—that’s almost enough for a college degree. How many native-born Americans would work that hard to belong here?

Arwa is so pleased and grateful to be an American. Perhaps she values it more because she worked to hard to achieve it. In the face of her accomplishment and pride, my cynicism about America’s shortcomings fell away, and my faith in the American dream was renewed.