Why I’m Still Not An American
by Richard Morgan
It’s a simple enough conversation-starter: So, where are you from? What I’ve learned to say is, “I’m from D.C.,” because it’s a good enough answer and nobody ever really has anything to say about D.C. anyway.
I was born on Knifecrime Island, in London, and lived there until I was six. I remember it vividly: the song I’d sing with my mother as we walked to school every day, “The Paul Daniels Magic Show” I’d watch with my grandmother, and that epic schoolyard brawl I got in at St. Vincent’s where I lost some teeth and Sister Patricia told me to gargle hot salt water until it felt better. And, OMG, the candy! The only two things Brits do better than naval dominance are candy and American sitcoms.
Then one day in October 1985, my mother scooped up my three siblings and me and put us on a Pan Am plane bound for America. When foreigners talk about the United States, they almost never call it “the United States” or “the USA” (although once I had to convince a Chinese friend that USA Network was not government programming). Sometimes it’s “the States,” but mostly it’s “America,” even though that term was first used to describe Brazil. I still marvel that all my family’s worldly goods — all our clothes and keepsakes and toys — fit in a few large suitcases to which my siblings still refer reverentially as “the London bags.”
My father, a British scientist for the U.S. government, picked us up from the airport in a golden car. It turned out that it was his boss’; we actually owned a small brown Volkswagen Rabbit. But wow, I still remember that car ride, my face pressed to the window. There’s so much space in America. Room for everything, I thought.
I got to first grade and was made fun of for not knowing the Pledge of Allegiance. But I loved that we sang songs every morning. My favorite was “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” even before I learned that, technically speaking by any vexillographer’s rule, the flag is a mullet-spangled banner, not a star-spangled one. But soon I assimilated. I picked up an American accent, which helped me get more popular, although so did becoming a black-market dealer in Garbage Pail Kids. (Here, an immigration lawyer I bounced this essay off of to make sure it didn’t include anything deportable or prohibitive of future naturalization noted: “If this was a criminal activity, it could obviously cause an issue in the future…However, if the ‘crime’ was committed while you were a minor, there are more generous exceptions or full excuses to some activities.”)
Growing up in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs of Bethesda and Potomac is not like growing up in other areas of the United States. There are lots of international kids. It reminded me of home, where I had French neighbors and a Portuguese milkman. I thought that’s how life was everywhere.
Let me say here, before I forget, that I love America. It’s an incredible, daring experiment in governance and freedom. This is not one of those rants about how America isn’t #1 (although those conversations are like debating which state is #1). Barack Obama is a fantastic realization of what is possible here and my genuine love for him extends from more than just that his state flag incorporates my beloved Union Jack. The only time I’ve ever cried on assignment was when I covered a beautiful naturalization ceremony that was being held for the first time at the National Civil Rights Museum. Immigration officials there distributed official letters from the president, signed by his autopen on White House stationery, welcoming the new citizens; I nabbed one. When Obama was first elected, my mother called me that night in tears, asking “Are you watching? It’s so important that you watch. This couldn’t happen anywhere else, darling. You just don’t know.”
Part of why I don’t know is because I was never raised to believe I was American or British. Or even white (perhaps because I’m half-Arab, which is a revocable kind of white). And by the time I moved to North Carolina — where I attended high school and college — I had already glommed onto the lie of being “from D.C.”
Today, my brother lives in Montreal, having lived in Prague and southern France before that. One sister lives in Paris, the other on Wall Street. My mother, although Palestinian, was born in Santiago on vacation and so technically might qualify as Chilean. My Catholic Palestinian aunt and uncle married a Syrian Muslim and an American Jew, respectively, and this summer the uncle moved from San Diego to Toronto. My British cousin in Miami married an American Latina and one of his brothers, who lives in São Paolo, just got engaged to a Brazilian (those cousins were raised in Argentina and India). My best friend from North Carolina is a magical mutt who goes by the name Kid Ethnic. My first kiss was in Italy, and I lost my virginity to a Republican State Department intern, which, geez, metaphors. I studied abroad in China and Costa Rica. Identity of the rabid, insistent “#1” variety was just never in play with anyone I cared about or respected. Although, in fairness, I did have over my bed when I was in high school and college both a Union Jack I’d gotten from my grandfather and a European Union flag I’d bought at a tobacco shop in Rome.
But here it is more than a quarter-century after arriving and I’m still not an American. I have a green card. And my mother and one of my sisters became American. But it never appealed to me. On the occasion of today being Constitution and Citizenship Day (formerly I’m An American Day), I wanted to write about why I’m not American and don’t want to be. Really, I just needed the excuse to figure it out for myself. Why am I not a citizen? Why am I instead a “permanent resident”? You know what the next rung down for me would be? “Alien of Extraordinary Ability,” which is probably the best title any bureaucrat in human history has ever scribbled down. Not exactly a demotion.
It definitely hasn’t been for lack of exposure that I haven’t become American. I’ve lived in the wealthiest, most diverse city in the country: New York. But also the poorest, blackest city in America: Memphis. I’ve lived in the tony suburbs of D.C., as well as the dirt-road rural pockets of North Carolina (my hometown, Apex, was voted best small town in the state in 1994). I led my college’s Campus Crusade for Christ, including a stint as chair of the Prayer Committee, but also bleached my hair and hooked up with dudes in a Berkeley frat house. I’ve been a chattering-class Ivy League journalist, but also a ranch hand in Colorado. I sat on bales of hay outside of a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, debating the death penalty as Timothy McVeigh enjoyed his last two pints of mint chocolate-chip ice cream before he was executed by Uncle Sam. Briefly, in 2008, I lived in the Alaskan Arctic, in the part of America where the sun shone 24 hours a day.
My passport is British, although I think of it more as a European Union passport; sometimes, when people ask why it’s magenta, I joke it’s because I’m gay. When I asked my mother once why I’m named Richard, she responded very plainly that I and all my siblings — Alexander, Caroline, Katherine — were given names that easily translate into other languages. I asked why I wasn’t called Joseph (it’s my middle name, after my mother’s father, who died shortly before I was born) and she said “only poor Irish workers are named Joe.” That’s the kind of thing you get to say when you’re an immigrant and you come from Palestine, which hasn’t existed for my mother since she was 13 and Israeli troops took over. I was a funny genetic mash-up: the only empire to colonize every continent on one side of the family, stripped and shamed statelessness on the other. A friend in D.C. — when I returned as an adult to be a congressional reporter — joked that I was the British mandate for Palestine.
I could always pass — as straight, as American, as whatever I needed to be. But it never feels good to pass like that.
Growing up in the D.C. area was special because it meant near-constant trips to the National Mall (and the best fireworks). But also to weekend-long school trips to Williamsburg, which took great pains to stir people’s souls about America. Nearby Busch Gardens, by contrast, reduced Europe to caricatures. This was the kind of patriotism that infused my schooling: in seventh grade, my music teacher composed a song for the Pledge of Allegiance, which we sang (and signed in ASL) for the local NBC affiliate. And here’s how progressive my school was: I didn’t learn (or hear) the N-word until sixth grade, when I mispronounced Niger. That was when I learned that there’s a lot in America to keep quiet about. And so I kept quiet for the most part.
At the same time, I was grappling with the early days of being closeted. It’s remarkable how similar the two experiences are, as Jose Antonio Vargas, the flaunting fugitive of American immigration’s cable-news talking heads, who is also gay, has noted. You realize you’re an outsider and can’t do anything about it. But you learn to play things close to the vest. You develop a hyper-awareness not just of yourself, but of your surroundings, of your peers, of pregnant pauses, of the situations that unfold — especially when people’s ugly bigotry surfaces. I could always pass — as straight, as American, as whatever I needed to be. But it never feels good to pass like that. Being a non-citizen is like being gay in the way that you can always see your breath; it renders the invisible visible, which is equal parts blessing and curse. You realize that you sorta have to lie a lot, but that lying prohibits you from moving forward with your life. It’s scary. How scary? Even with naturalized citizenship, that citizenship can be revoked for pretty much only two reasons: one is having lied to the government at any point in the naturalization process, the other is treason.
THE KABOB FAMILY
And there are moments when we don’t pass. My uncle also worked in the service of this country as a federal scientist. When he was at the National Institutes of Health, he got called “Alien Kabob” in an office memo. His name is Alain Dabdoub. He was so pivotal to my sense of living in America because he always went out of his way to hold people accountable for their role as citizens of the world. He is only 12 years older than I am, and so was kind of heroic in the way that older brothers, I imagine, can be. When he got to this country and had to identify ethnically for the first time (to fill out college paperwork) he checked “Asian,” because Palestine is in Asia. The clerk corrected him.
Because he and my Arab aunts didn’t have true passports — just Israeli “travel documents,” because heaven forbid (literally, I think) that Israel acknowledge Arabs with their own passports — they were largely stuck in the United States. So mostly they went on cruises or to national parks for vacations. When I emailed him about this story, he wrote back gruffly that this essay was “sophomoric” and, in part, “people who do not want to be citizens are free to leave,” a view shared by many Americans, a group he is keen to join. As with everyone on my mother’s side, he speaks fluent Arabic, English and French (my mother is also fluent in Spanish). I remember being ashamed during a game of hangman I played with him when I was maybe seven or eight because I didn’t remember the word “trousers,” and his scoffing that, oh, maybe that was too British of a word for me. The slightest thing can crumple a paper-thin identity.
Although I was free to move about the planet — and did, often — I tried very hard to drum up some connection to America. The summer after I graduated college, I bought an Amtrak pass and rode the rails from town to town. Partly I wanted to know America as pioneers had, outside of highway monoculture, in trains that darted across prairies, through mountains and along rivers. I wanted a sense of America’s scale, which a two-day train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles will give you.
There are plenty of times, too, when my citizenship — or lack thereof — has made things tough. Once, on a flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles, I got sick and forced the plane to make an emergency landing in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was dumped on the tarmac with two traveling companions, whisked off in an ambulance, and abandoned, left to get to L.A. by my own means. I’m pretty sure I didn’t go through customs. But am I supposed to tell that crazy story every time an immigration official asks why my passport wasn’t stamped for a return? Yes, I am. Another time, when my green card was stolen by airport officials in Lima, I was stuck for days, eventually bribing my way to getting three official stamps on a police report, then having the local airline fly me to New York first class, knowingly incurring the $10,000 fine for bringing people into the United States without documentation. In the bowels of immigration at JFK, I was surrounded mostly by Slavic old women and Arab and South Asian men. The officer asked me where I lived. “Off the A train,” I said, with my best fuhgettaboudit inflection. He laughed. My passport — a rushed, same-day job I got when I accidentally went to Costa Rica with an expired one — looked extremely fake because the plastic lining had peeled off (the airport immigration official told me I could get a lot of money for it). And when I lost my green card — which, wow, is like what your driver’s license will look like in the 22nd century, all holograms of my face and mini-holograms of all the state flags and all the presidents’ faces — I obtained a temporary green card, which is a piece of heavy-stock paper with my photo stapled to it and a Homeland Security stamp that has to partially cover the photo, like an Iranian driver’s license from the 70s; it’s not even laminated. Luckily, in all these misadventures, I know three numbers that can save my life: my mother’s phone number, my Social Security number, and my alien registry number.
NO, I WAS NEVER A PART OF NAZI GERMANY
The older I got, though, and the more I learned about America and the process of citizenship, the less it appealed to me.
Perhaps it was unwise, in hindsight, to have taken that job as a congressional reporter after college. I saw the sausage being made. It was wonderful to cover dull hearings and be entranced by these political demigods — Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Paul Wellstone, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner. But not always.
There was that time I had to cover a NASA meeting and went to sign in at the front desk. Next to my name, it asked my nationality. “Oh,” I said, “is this important? Or just, like, a guestbook kind of thing?” They said I should fill it out, so I did and they gave me a visitor badge with a green V, for visitor. I headed to the meeting but only made it a few steps before they stopped me. “Hold on. You wrote ‘UK.’ I thought you wrote ‘US.’” They took my badge and replaced it with one that had a red F, for foreigner. An actual scarlet letter. I shrugged and headed again to the meeting but was stopped. Now I needed an armed escort.
Which brings me to the actual reasons I don’t want to become an American; there are two main branches of this decision tree: process and philosophy. And, man, you can tell even from the awkwardness of that last sentence how nerve-racking it is to talk about this.
First, the process. Oh Lord, so much process.
Chief among the red-tape red flags is something called the Oath of Allegiance, a kind of varsity-level version of the Pledge of Allegiance. Mainly, it requires citizens not just to pledge allegiance to the United States, which is fine, but also to denounce whatever country they came from. That would be like including in your wedding vows not only that you love your new spouse, but that you never loved any of your exes. Who does that? Who needs that?
Outside of needy, pushy, insecure, nobody-in-your-heart-but-me creepiness, there is a lot of comic absurdity in the process. I was born in 1979, but I have to affirm that I was never a part of the Nazi party of Germany between 1933 and 1945; I’m sorta surprised I’m not required to affirm that I’m not the Lindbergh Baby. I have to affirm that I’ve never attempted to or succeeded in overthrowing a government. I have to affirm that I have never engaged in prostitution, although, what’s prostitution, really? If I went on a date with a so-so guy who went out of his way to pay for a fancy dinner and tickets on the first-base line at Yankee Stadium, and so I let him blow me afterwards even though I wasn’t that into him, is that prostitution? (Sidenote here: I don’t know for sure, but would guess that immigration officers don’t look kindly on immigrants asking, “What’s prostitution, really?” Don’t try this at home).
My favorite bit is that everyone who becomes an American cheats to do it. As part of a test on history and civics, aspiring citizens are given all 100 possible questions along with all the acceptable answers; test-takers are then asked a random selection of ten, only six of which they have to answer correctly, which would be a failing grade in any school. The questions-with-answers study guides are offered in English, Spanish and Chinese, although the test is administered solamente en Inglés. That’s separate from the spoken portion of the test, where all you have to do is read a single sentence in English. What’s especially galling is that applicants are asked trivia such as who is the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, even though 63 percent of Americans can’t name a single Justice. And they’re asked about the cause of the Civil War (which has official permission to be called the War Between the States instead, but not the War of Northern Aggression or The Great Rebellion), even though test administrators don’t want the real answer. Somehow, the government pulls off the paradoxical feat of simultaneously offering a test that is both too easy and too hard. I’m not sure if that makes everyone a winner or a loser.
The most egregious of these criteria is that a person’s citizenship can be barred if he or she “admits committing any criminal act covered by [the previous paragraphs] for which there was never a formal charge, indictment, arrest, or conviction, whether committed in the United States or any other country.” This means that Obama can become president after admitting to dabbling in cocaine, but an aspiring immigrant could not become a citizen if one were to admit any similar druggy dalliance — even if there were no public record of that act. Not even under First Amendment freedoms as a journalist, the way a young Dan Rather asked local Texas police officers to strap him to a chair and inject him with heroin “so [he] could do a story about it.” I’m not sure how the Fifth Amendment applies to gonzo journalism for immigrants, but I would hope for the sake of many aspiring citizens that it does.
The morality of the whole thing is very foggy.
Luckily, the government has clarified with a Determination of Good Moral Character clause. This involves prohibitions that are pretty reasonable: you can’t become a citizen if you’ve ever committed murder or treason, that sort of thing. And a ban on applicants who “violated any law of the United States, any State, or any foreign country relating to a controlled substance, provided the violation was not a single offense for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.” A bit arbitrary with those 30 grams. Still, whatever, I get it. Fine.
But then: “An extramarital affair which tended to destroy an existing marriage shall preclude a finding of good moral character.” Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, once third in line for the presidency, is just one of many, many Americans who could not become citizens were they to apply. Similarly, good moral character is denied to anyone who “is or was a habitual drunkard,” which would strand two-million-plus folks in Alcoholics Anonymous and large swaths of the Kennedy dynasty. My favorite is America’s refusal of applicants who have “willfully failed or refused to support dependents” — deadbeat dads, an American term.
When I emailed my uncle about this story, he wrote back gruffly that this essay was “sophomoric” and, in part, “people who do not want to be citizens are free to leave,” a view shared by many Americans, a group he is keen to join.
On the flip side of the hypocrisy is the very understandable notion that, being a sort of private club, of course America should want only the best applicants — even better, in many cases, than actual Americans, although good luck getting anyone in D.C. to admit that.
Now we’re into the philosophical terrain; here be dragons. America is a kind of communal lie in the way that the speed limit is. Nobody obeys the speed limit. And, when a highway patrolman pulls you onto the side of the road and asks, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” nobody confesses. America is a place that is at once hyper-aware and hyper-ignorant.
America is a place where the Navy was founded for the express purpose of beating down Muslim pirates in the Barbary Wars. It’s a place where presidential campaigns make a big fuss about their selection for vice president even though that job is so inconsequential that the country has gotten by, in total, 38 years without a veep, when you add up all the absences. It’s a place where Florida was acquired by one guy, Andrew Jackson, virtually single-handedly massacring some Spaniards, an act that helped promote him into the White House. It’s a place where civil rights as a matter of race were mandated by the nation, but civil rights as a matter of sexuality are left up to the states. It’s a place where the cockiest state — the Lone Star State of Texas — prides itself on those nearly ten years when it was a sovereign nation before it joined the Union because it was scared of Mexico, which is the coward’s way out in most books.
It’s a place founded on the promise of “no taxation without representation,” where citizens of the capital city are federally taxed without real representation — a capital in a district named for a goddess, in a city named for the first ruler, with a district flag that is nothing more than that first ruler’s 12th-century English family crest. It’s a place where, in American Samoa (a part of the United States that people often forget about), real estate is still legally decided by matter of bloodline, a tradition that would be jeopardized if Samoans were granted citizenship (currently they’re non-citizen “nationals,” although that might change very soon).
America is a place that bills itself as the land of noble values and asks applicants to table those values to become citizens.
So why am I here? Why aren’t I one of those move-to-Canada blusterers? Or why don’t I move to one of the states that wants to secede, or just dismantle itself? Outside of the practical reasons I’m here — HBO, family, work (yes, I take your jobs) — America is this weird, wonderful trap. On the hot/crazy scale, America is the hottest country by far and so is also by far the craziest. I do love America but, to quote one of my own countrymen, “my love is as a fever, longing still for that which longer nurseth the disease.”
I recognize that this is a luxurious dilemma: Britain versus America. I am not fleeing an impoverished country or escaping a brutal regime. Many might find my situation enviable, although it’s strange: for every American friend telling me that, if they had an E.U. passport, they’d live a wild Hemingway adventure in Europe, there’s a counterpart non-citizen who thinks I’m crazy not to have snatched up citizenship the first chance I got. Both views have flawed presumptions; Europe is not a romantic wonderland, and America does not have a monopoly on freedom or opportunity.
If America hadn’t bubbled up in Jamestown or Plymouth Rock or Philly or wherever, it would’ve happened sometime someplace. It’s one of those things the human race would’ve eventually gotten around to, like calculus or atomic bombs. If you ask the tour guides at the United Nations where they’re from, they say, “I’m a citizen of the world.” That’s an approach that we would have come to somehow after we got done racing around the oceans, naming things and sticking flags everywhere.
I don’t see anything anti-American about not wanting to become an American citizen; it’s similar to the fact that I don’t know how to swim. I’m not anti-water; it just never mattered that much to me and my life is fine without it. Thankfully, the Founding Fathers have my back. They didn’t care much about being American either. Among the Constitutional Convention’s delegates, 19 never bothered to show up; “some of these declined, others merely neglected the duty,” according to the National Archives. Rhode Island didn’t even participate at all. New York barely ratified the Constitution by a vote of 30 to 27; similarly, Virginia’s vote was 89 to 79. Voter apathy — indeed, apathy about the nation itself — dates back to America’s zygotic period. Americans didn’t even know who wrote the Constitution, who actually put pen to paper, until 1937; turns out it was a day-laborer named Jacob Shallus who did it for 30 bucks.
All of that Constitution talk overlooks, of course, the fact that the Constitutional Convention was an act of secret political rebellion. They had convened to fix the horrible Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first failed confederacy, and decided instead to control-alt-delete that mess and start again, much to the chagrin of John Hanson, the nation’s first president under that document. The Republic of Texas lasted longer.
The Confederation failed, in part, because “it had no means of revenue independent of that received through its requisitions on the States, which were nothing more than requests, which the states could and did disregard.” That’s the difference, to me, between people focused on a “we built that” republic and people focused on a “We The People” democracy.
LIFE CAN BE BRIGHT IN AMERICA
This year I was in D.C. for the Fourth of July. The celebration on the National Mall included “America” from West Side Story — although without the words, obviously. And the “1812 Overture,” which was seemingly appropriated to honor the bicentennial of the War of 1812, even though the music was written to honor Russian resilience after Napoleon’s failed attempt to expand his domain eastward. Oh well.
In 1998, when Puerto Rico put to a vote its territorial status — basically whether or not to become a state — voters had four options: commonwealth, independence, statehood or none of the above. What exactly, I’ve always wondered, was none of the above? None of the above was everything. It was all of the above, as well as the most popular choice. Although maybe that will change as this November’s “wildcard.” Who knows? America is full of surprises.
Richard Morgan is such a common American name that there is one printed on both the Vietnam Wall and the 9/11 Memorial. He wrote this in between marathon rounds of Civilization V: Gods & Kings, where he was Arabia, founded Islam, and wiped Siam and America off the face of the Earth.