Last Thursday, I walked into the local pub The Tap on Main to see a huge American flag hanging from the ceiling. “The Star Spangled Banner” was playing on the stereo, and bottles of Coca Cola, apple pie and patriotic cupcakes sat on a table nearby. But most importantly, at the end of the bar was a big group of my friends, all of who had gathered just for me.
Earlier that day, I’d driven to Louisville to take my citizenship test, the last step before you are naturalized as an American. I’d been studying for it for the past week and now knew: Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. James Madison was the main writer of the Constitution. The Constitution was adopted on July 4, 1776. Not 1767, but 1776. 1776. 1776.
Studying for this test, which consists of knowing the answers to 100 questions about American civics and geography, had been interesting. Finally, I was getting some things cleared up in my head. For example, I’d always thought the Declaration of Independence had happened after the Revolutionary War, after the Americans had won and “declared” victory. I had had no idea that the Louisiana Purchase was the purchase of such a huge piece of land, extending all the way to the Canadian border. And I’d always just associated Benjamin Franklin with kite flying, not libraries, the post office or writing the Constitution.
While learning this had been enjoyable, taking the test, as with all things involving immigration and customs, was not nearly as fun.
I arrived at the federal courthouse to find my lawyer waiting to brief me about what to expect. The officer would give me the test and then go over my citizenship application, making sure everything was accurate. Then she would ask me a series of questions like: Had I ever been involved in terrorist activity? Had I ever been arrested? Would I be willing to bear arms for the United States of America?
Minutes later, I was taken into her interview room. She kicked immediately into the test, asking me to write down a sentence, read a sentence and then started on the test questions, which she asked me orally. As you might have gathered, all of this is designed to test your English comprehension.
I was nearly on the last question of the civics test, when she tripped me up: “Why did the colonists fight the British?”
I knew this answer, of course I did. But somehow something seized in my brain. Had I heard her correctly? Who were the colonists? Colonists. Colonnnnists. Colon-ists. What a strange word.
I repeated her question aloud, like I was in a spelling bee, and my lawyer looked over at me, worried. The officer watched me impatiently. Suddenly it occurred to me all that I had riding on this interview. I could feel my nerves start to pound on my heart like drumsticks. Something loosened in my stomach.
“Colonists. The colonists,” I began, and then stammered out, “wanted the British soldiers to stop staying in their houses.”
What was I? In grade three?
Luckily, she accepted it — the correct answers are: because of high taxes, because they wanted to self-govern, because colonists were forced to let British soldiers sleep and eat in their homes — and we moved on. But I was rattled. Bad nervous now. When she started going over my application, my comprehension of the English language was marginal. It was like my brain had been sawed in half, with just a tiny, swaying suspension bridge left to connect all the information that had to pass back and forth between the two sides.
Then there was trouble with a stamp in my passport. A customs officer had admitted me into the U.S. on a visitor’s visa.
“Why was this done?” she asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Did you show him your green card?”
“Ms. Kaprowy, where were you going in May 2013?”
At this point, I couldn’t tell her if my American life depended on it, which, hello, it did.
“Canada,” I squeaked out. “Winnipeg, I think.”
She grimaced at me, unhappy now. I was not the stellar American citizen applicant she was looking for. In fact, if she asked me any more questions about my trips, I was pretty sure I was going to start crying.
Then she told me that my passport photos were the wrong size and asked me if I had brought any with me. When I told her no, she made a lengthy note in my file in angry red pen.
But she moved on, asking me if I’d ever persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
The question was simple enough, and of course my answer was no. But this is how it was initially translating in my head: alioneaspdgiansdroeipansf?
After a long (and damning) pause, I managed to say no. She frowned again and then asked me:
“Have you ever been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution?”
And my response, which came out as if in mega slow-mo, my voice getting deeper and slower with every syllable, was this:
“Procured anyone for prostitution …”
Which sounded exactly as if I was considering saying yes.
That’s when my lawyer stepped in and somehow they started talking about whether or not their kids were going to have school the next day because of all the snow.
This gave me the moment’s pause I needed to get back on track.
“No,” I interrupted, somewhat victoriously. “I’ve never procured anyone for prostitution.”
In the end, my road to citizenship remains intact. If I submit some passport photos in the next 30 days, I should be on my way to a naturalization ceremony some time in April or May. So I thankfully headed back to little, comforting Somerset. It was time to head to the Tap on Main.