In the spring of 2007, when I took the test to become an American citizen, I acted like the 19-year-old teenager I was: I was smug and annoyed at the whole affair. At this point, I'd already lived in California with a green card for seven years; I already knew all of the answers to the long list of potential questions about American history and politics, thanks to my high school coursework. When the officer at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services asked me to demonstrate basic understanding of the English language, I almost rolled my eyes, as if to remind him, hello, I go to UC Berkeley. At the group swear-in ceremony, where I was given my certificate along with a little plastic American flag to wave, I looked around at the crowd of excited immigrants and their families and thought: Whatever. America isn't all that great.
I didn't begin to feel proud to be an American until 2008, when I cast my ballot for Obama and celebrated his victory with what seemed like my entire college campus. It felt like proof this was indeed the land of opportunity—that the American dream was real—and for the first time, I started to feel closer to my new home than my motherland of Taiwan.
The recent presidential election left me feeling differently. Even as a naturalized citizen, the anti-immigrant rhetoric from Donald Trump's campaign stings, and the sudden increase of xenophobia and racist hate crimes following the election is very real. Even in liberal cities, people of color—perceived to be immigrants—have been told, "Go back to your country."
But I don't regret becoming an American, and the other naturalized immigrants I spoke to unanimously agree.
"Native-born Americans were joking about 'Oh I'm leaving the country' [post-election] and I don't even want to joke about that," said Binly Phounsiri, a Laotian American artist and engineer in his late 20s. "I have this village mentality: This is my village, and I'm not going to walk away from it."
In psychology, the theory of effort heuristic states the level of value a person assigns to something is directionally proportional to the amount of effort required to acquire or create it. When you have to work hard for your American citizenship, you don't take it for granted. And becoming a citizen isn't typically easy:In most cases, a permanent resident can apply for citizenship after living here for five years, but the average application takes seven years. On top of the citizenship application fees (currently $595 per person), many immigrant families pay out of pocket to hire attorneys to help with their cases. You also have to sort through heaps of documents, schedule the requisite appointments, memorize the answers to questions about history and politics in the United States. For me, the process felt like just another annoying part of being a teenager, but for many others, it's a huge investment in a better future.
So when I heard how many Americans wanted to move to Canada post-election in 2016, I was incredulous. When you have already uprooted everything—and given up so much—to be in a country like the US, you don't just up and leave when things go awry. I hold dual citizenships, so I could've moved back to Taipei with relative ease. But to be apathetic about my American citizenship would be a personal betrayal to all the struggles I overcame in assimilation. As immigrants, we can't afford to have defeatist attitudes. And given the conscious choices we took to adopt the United States as our new home, we may have an easier time accepting America's flaws and staying hopeful in times of confusion.
Duran Rose, a software engineer who came to the States from Jamaica with his family at the age of ten, shared similar sentiments. "Even when some things are bad, you chose to be here, and it's on you to make it better," Rose told me.
That's why this year, for me and many others, is about getting more involved in making this the country I chose to live in. America isn't perfect—but neither is any country. Part of being a citizen means taking the reigns to make it better, and the responsibility to continue progress here is on every single one of us who has the privilege to call the United States home.
Follow Chin Lu on Twitter.