Choosing to Be an American This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

December 3, 2012
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At the age of four, I traveled to the United States with two strangers, my parents' friends. Today, I have no recollection of who they were or what they looked like. I do know, however, that they guided me to the land that has become my home. Because I was born in China, I am considered a Chinese citizen. America does not acknowledge that I have lived here almost four times longer than I lived in China. To most Americans, I am but one of the many “Made in China” products that flew over the Pacific Ocean – someone they are accustomed to seeing but do not call their own. Even if I had been born in the U.S. and was a citizen, I would still be viewed as a foreigner, an outsider.

My dad left China for the States on a student visa when I was two. Unfortunately, this visa did not allow him to bring any family members for a year. After that, he was able to extend his visa to my mother. A year later, he was granted one more extension – me. Since then, it has taken my family ten years to be considered permanent residents, even though we never had any intention of leaving. Before that, we were “aliens” – an official term used on all legal papers. We are identified on document headers by an Alien Number. To find employment, we needed to apply to be “Alien Workers.” To become permanent residents, we had to fill out “Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker” forms.

According to the naturalization system, a person of Chinese citizenship must remain within the boundaries of Manifest Destiny for at least 20 years before even dreaming of becoming a citizen. As a consequence, I could not attend my uncle's wedding or my grandfather's funeral; my parents could not leave American soil even to escort me to this land of opportunity. I want to be naturalized. I want to be an American citizen. But I cannot, because I have not been a permanent resident long enough.

I have no control over time. With only seventeen years behind me, ten of which had to be spent continuously here, I could not become a permanent resident any earlier. I am a prisoner contained within lines drawn on a map.

The biggest concern in waiting
my ten years has been my college ­education. Had my family not been upgraded to permanent residency, I would have been considered an international student, forced to pay international tuition. Regardless of my AIMS scores, SAT scores, AP scores, GPA, or the state taxes my parents have paid for the past ten years, I would have had access to limited scholarships and financial aid. Returning to China for a more affordable education is unreasonable. Surely the American government does not expect a “white-washed” Chinese girl to return to her home country for the first time in 13 years – losing her year count for citizenship along the way, and bringing “American” knowledge to their economic competition.

Ironically, permanent residency status expires exactly ten years after its issue date. Seven years and seven months from now, I can either test for citizenship, or I will no longer be a permanent resident. Apparently, the definition of “permanent” is used loosely in the United States government.

I have been learning about American history and government for the past twelve years. With a 4.0 in AP U.S. History and a 5.0 in AP Government, I am confident I will pass the naturalization test. It is my parents I worry about. If only six out of thirty high school seniors in AP Government (the majority of whom are American-born citizens) can pass the naturalization test, how can two aliens to this country pass? To what standard of knowledge does the United States government hold its immigrants, compared to native-born citizens? If over 90 percent of immigrants can pass this test on their first attempt, 80 percent of my AP Government class falls under the remaining 10 percent. This double standard is neither fair nor logical.

I feel irritated when little girls at the grocery store point at me and shout, “Look, Mommy, it's Mulan!” I feel offended when I see the surprised look on new students' faces when they hear me speak without an accent. I feel discriminated against when volunteers in front of Walmart don't bother asking me to register to vote, assuming I am not a citizen. What do I have to do to prove that I am American at heart?

Who determines who is American? The founding fathers were all immigrants from faraway England. While they were clearly invaders of Native American land, the New Englanders were allowed to call themselves Americans. I, too, came from a faraway country. My origin is China, but my destination is America. In a sense, I am more American than native-born citizens, because I am in the same position as the people who founded this free nation.

How dare people call me a “communist” when I have never believed in anything but democracy? How can a country that fights wars for freedom in nations thousands of miles away not let people on her own soil practice democracy on account of citizenship?

Let me be a citizen. Let me take the test. Let me become American. Let me prove to the President of the United States of America that my understanding of American history surpasses that of a large majority of the American population. Let me prove to the senator of Arizona that my knowledge of the English language is enough to communicate effectively with the intellectual community. Let me prove to the president of Arizona State University that just because I was born in a different country does not mean I am unworthy of scholarships.

Do not tell me what or who I am. Only I can decide that for myself. Even if the rest of the country may view me as an other, I still regard myself as American. Although I do keep some traditions from my Chinese heritage, I am American at heart. I grew up in American culture. I am American, not by birth or by naturalization, but by choice.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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