My name was called out. A certificate was put into my shaking hands. I was born again. And all I could think to say was, "Thank you."
A moment ago, I was just a person who lived in America. Now, I had become an adopted son, a citizen.
I can vote, call myself American, and be called on to fight for this land.
It is so far from Lebanon. When I left there in 1983, my country was in the midst of a civil war. The U.S. embassy had been turned into rubble a few months before I received a student visa to America.
In St. Petersburg, I did not volunteer that I was Lebanese. I stayed quiet when people said hateful things about my country. I just wanted to go on learning, to make this my new country.
Now, it had finally happened. I had my certificate. And all I could think to say was, "Thank you."
Arriving to America
My father vehemently rejected my idea of leaving. He did not want me to be too far from my three brothers and three sisters. I was determined to continue my college education and live in peace.
I was 21 and did not know a word of English or anybody in the United States. Movies and airline advertisements portrayed America as the heaven of the world, with fancy cars, beautiful women and golden opportunities.
I landed in Tampa on Aug. 15, 1983. It was 2 o'clock in the morning. There were no beautiful women or fancy cars. There was an overweight taxi driver and an old yellow cab. I gave the driver a letter that Eckerd College had sent me along with my acceptance form to the English Language Service. The letter was to explain all I needed to say.
The airport was my first dose of reality. My shock came when I heard people speaking. I realized that learning English was not going to be a walk into the end zone.
I decided to learn as much as possible from my mistakes no matter how embarrassing they were. And if things got rough, I would just smile.
On the second day, I overheard an American student expressing his anger by shouting the f-word. That day in class, the tip of my pencil broke off. I wanted to use the handy word I just learned and sound like a native. I said it loud enough to make sure the
teacher would hear so I could claim my credit.
My teacher's eyes bulged while he explained to me in French what I had just said. My face turned red as blood.
During the first week, I learned the essentials of the language, the alphabet, where is the bathroom? would you like to dance? and the f-word.
People kept speaking loud to me when I did not understand what they were saying. When things got rough, I smiled.
It was frustrating trying to apply the proper way of speaking we learned in class to the daily conversation. I have spent hours looking up ain't, gonna and similar words.
On my second date, while having dinner, my date said, "You're pulling my leg." How could I? I didn't even touch her. To my confusion, she said, "You crack me up." Crack you up?
I just smiled.
I had learned the alphabet and was beginning to speak English when tragedy hit Lebanon. A suicide bomber drove his van into the Marine compound near Beirut. Hundreds of Marines were killed.
The word Beirut became a taboo. I feared hatred and discrimination. I just wanted to fit in.
Learning the language had cleared me off first base _ conversation. But becoming familiar with sports, television shows, movies and music took me home.
Television came up in most of the conversation that often included the hottest action movies, the latest sitcoms, the funniest joke of Letterman and Carson, justification of a big loss by the Bucs and drafts of players.
I started reading the sports section. Soon, new words were added to my vocabulary. Foul ball, the Cardinals, the Blue Jays, Joe Montana, touchdown, the Lakers.
I did not have a television set, but I read about television shows and movies.
I thought I was home free until I tripped over the phrase, "to the moon Alice." I asked my co-workers who was Alice? They said she was Ralph's wife.
"You do not have a TVEEEEE," Garry, a co-worker, said. "You have picked the wrong country to live in. If you are planning on living here, you better get one."
A friend gave me her extra set to complete the process of becoming a citizen, as she put it. To be more official, I bought a VCR.
Sports and television terminology were easy to learn. But terms like politically correct, racially sensitive, and others in this category were more complicated. Soon I found myself inheriting the anguish to find out who assassinated JFK.
I received my first credit card. I entered the American way of shopping. It was simple. Buy today, sign on the dotted line, and pay later.
I felt uneasy about it. Then I found out that 70 percent of Americans are in debt. It is the American way.
The immigration process
A few years after coming here, I became a permanent resident. But the law required a five-year wait to apply for citizenship. My father described my interest in becoming an American as perfidious. He feared that I would stay here forever. My mother encouraged me and said it was practical.
Five years later, I picked up an application for naturalization.
I was given 100 questions to study for the interview.
Even my American friends could not answer many of the questions. Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death?" Name the 13 original colonies. What was the name of the ship that brought the pilgrims to the New World?
A year later, I received my notice for the interview at the immigration office on West Gray Street in Tampa. Fear of failing the test and facing deportation loomed large in my mind. I arrived to Room 214.
An immigration officer handed me a multiple choice test. It started with who becomes president of the United States if the president dies?
I passed the test. Then, I raised my right hand and swore that all the information I had enclosed was true. She paused for 60 seconds. It was too long of a minute. She said congratulations, you have met all the requirements of naturalization, and we will send you a notice in two to three months to attend the ceremony and receive your certificate.
On Thursday Jan. 27th, I crossed the Howard Frankland Bridge for the ceremony at the West Tampa Convention Center.
The naturalization ceremony is held every month. That day, 143 adults and five children completed the process. They were from Nigeria, Cuba, China, Vietnam, Lebanon, Jordan, Canada and other countries.
Happiness filled the room. I heard Spanish the most. Chinese sounded soft and parental. A Chinese man sat with his 17-month-old daughter. Her name was Ada. She was luckier than all of us. Ada was born here; she was an American citizen. Her parents migrated to the United States 10 years ago from Hong Kong.
I sat by the Nguyen family. They came from Vietnam 10 years ago. Mr and Mrs. Nguyen spoke little English, but their daughter expressed their feelings about that day. She said they were proud and lucky to be citizens of a country that allows them to be who they are, keep their family unity and tradition intact.
At 11 o'clock, MacDill Air Force Base Color Guards presented us with the symbol of our new country. They posted the Florida flag on the left and the American flag on the right. Charles H. Willing of Tenor Tampa Bay Master Chorale gave us another quilt of patriotism. He sang The Star Spangled Banner.
We raised our hands to take the oath. James J. Minton of the Immigration and Naturalization Service swore us to obey the Constitution and defend the country if we were called on. As we finished, everybody applauded.
We sang America the Beautiful, followed with the pledge of allegiance and retiring of the colors.
Our names were called to come up and receive our certificates. The Princess Hirrihgua Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution from St. Petersburg gave each new citizen an American flag. The ceremony concluded with instructions about voting registration in the back of the room.
I walked outside feeling secure. I had my certificate in my left hand, my flag in my right, and faith in my new country.
My father still does not like the idea. The rest of the family is happy for me. They wish to visit me soon, and I plan to go back to Lebanon every year to keep the family unity.
My American friends welcomed me with open arms. I own a television and a VCR. I am in debt. I know about sports.
I am an American.
_ Khalil E. Hachem is on the production staff of the Times.
Oath of Allegiance
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.
That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.
That I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.
That I will perform non-combatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law.
That I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law.
And that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God.