Becoming an American Citizen

This article was first published on KXAN's website in May 2011. At the time, I was a sophomore at UT and an intern with KXAN, Austin's NBC affilliate. The website suffered a massive crash several months ago, and a lot of the older articles were never recovered through the archives-- including this one. Luckily, I have many draft versions of this saved on the ever-trustworthy Google Drive. Enjoy.

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Natalie Hee is the LIN Media Minority Scholarship winner of 2011. As a part of the scholarship, she is contracted to work with the company for four years. Natalie interned with KXAN in the spring of 2011, and now works here part-time. She is a junior at the University of Texas pursuing a degree in broadcast journalism and business foundations. Natalie has also worked at KPRC in Houston, WISH-TV in Indianapolis, and will spend this summer at WPRI in Providence, RI.

Natalie was born in Malaysia and has moved back and forth between Texas, Louisiana and Malaysia. She recently became a naturalized American citizen after a 12-year process. This is her story.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

My family and I are perpetual nomads. When I was in the 3rd grade, we were transferred to New Orleans from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was only 9 years old, but had already lived in four different cities and been to five different schools. My dad works in oil and gas, so ever since I was three years old, I’ve been on the move-- growing up and living life as a child in an expatriate family.

For some reason, it never occurred to me that moving away from the rest of my extended family in Malaysia might become permanent. We left in January of 2000 and have lived in various U.S. cities ever since. I remember saying goodbye to my grandma, aunts and uncles at the airport in Kuala Lumpur. Surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly sad. To me, it seemed like we were embarking on an extended vacation. And knowing that we would stop in Disneyland on the way only made me more excited.

But after three, short-lived years in New Orleans, and transferring schools in the middle of the school year, I was done. I didn’t want to leave and cried for endless nights when I heard we were moving once again-- this time to The Woodlands, Texas, a suburb north of Houston.

SEVEN YEARS LATER: THE NATURALIZATION PROCESS BEGINS

In 2007, my family and I were approved to get our greencards after living in the states for seven consecutive years-- the maximum amount of time a person is allowed to stay in the U.S. with a visa.

I always knew that I would get naturalized as soon as I reached my five-year residency mark. I remember being one of the first and few people fortunate enough to turn 18 in high school before the 2008 elections. It was my senior year. But because I was only a permanent resident, I wasn’t allowed to vote. It was around the age I had become more interested and actively involved with current events and politics. I’d hear my friends talking in the hallways about who they voted for and was extremely jealous.

Fast forward five years and begins my application to become a naturalized American citizen.

The naturalization process has several different stages: the initial application and paperwork, the biometrics and fingerprinting, the civics test and interview, and if all prior processes go well, the final oath to officially become a U.S. citizen.

The most nerve-wrecking stage of the entire process is the civics test and interview. I started by taking the online quizzes and knew most of them, but still had a lot of memorizing to do. The questions are essentially common sense questions about the pivotal points in America’s history and the structure of our government. I’ve read that about 38% of Americans fail the test.

NO LAUGHING MATTER: THE INTERVIEW

It was April 4th, the day of my interview. I arrived promptly and waited in a room with about 50 people. It was over an hour before my name was even called. A lady in a patterned dress came out of the bold, wooden doors, looked at her clipboard and said, “Natalia Jo San."

Obviously, that’s not my full name, but I bit my lip and quickly went to her. She had a commanding voice despite her accent and I was immediately intimidated. Her name was Esther Ho. She led me into another room and said, “Wait here.” It was another 40 minutes before the actual interview began.

At this point, I felt as though my brain would erase all the answers I needed to know if I had to wait any longer. I got bored and started eavesdropping on the conversations beside me. Two women were speaking in Spanish to each other and I focused hard on translating their conversation in my head. One of them had hollow, glassy eyes that were a piercing gray color. I remember her from the previous waiting room. Behind me sat a young girl who looked like she was 15. I later discovered she was actually 19. She was quizzing an elderly woman whose accent I could not make out.

Esther arrived from what appeared to be thin air and summoned me to follow her. Initially when she called my name, she was warm and friendly, and I felt at ease. But the moment we sat down in her office, Esther Ho became a different person. She was stern and indifferent, and showed no sign of even the slightest smile-- a stark transformation in such a short walk. I was terribly intimidated by her.

“Raise your right hand,” commanded Esther. I swore to tell the truth and the interview began.

Esther started asking several softball questions like “Where are you from? Where have you lived? What school do you go to?” and would suddenly transition to questions like “Have you ever been involved with any terrorist associations?” Perhaps it was a good thing that Esther’s stern character and inaudible accent had me on the edge of my seat listening closely to every word she said.

Esther commanded me to take out my drivers license, green card, and all my passports-old and new- and lay them on the table. She began intensely filling out a series of tedious paperwork. Still no smile from Esther. The door was left half open and I could hear other interviewers laughing in the other rooms.

Then came the civics test questions. There were three components to this: an oral, written and English language proficiency portion- all of which would be graded by the officer. As far as the interview questions, I only had to get 6 out of 10 correct to pass.

Here are the six questions I was asked during the interview.

1) In what month do we vote for President?

2) How many voting members are in the House of Representatives?

3) How long do they stay in office?

4) Name one war the US fought in the 1900s?

5) Who is the founding father of our country?

6) Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

I knew these answers like the back of my hand and was thankful they weren’t questions I would second-guess in my head. I also had to write out the sentence “George Washington was the first president of our country.” I remember questioning whether “president” was capitalized or not, but ultimately decided to make the “P” size ambiguous-- a neat trick I learned in school.

“Congratulations and welcome to the United States of America!”

At that moment, Esther and I both smiled for the first time throughout the whole interview.

WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL

The oath was the last and final stage of the entire naturalization process. On April 25th, 2011 nearly 2,000 soon-to-be-citizens arrived at M.O Campbell Center in Houston with their friends and family. It was 7 in the morning and I’d already been awake for two hours. When we got up to the officials, I was directed to pick up my “oath ceremony materials” which consisted of a copy of The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and a miniature American flag. I also gave up my green card and was given an orange-colored card to signify which group I would later go with to pick up my official citizenship certificate.

The actual oath ceremony lasted only about 30 minutes, but we were there for four hours. Most of it was waiting. There was a singer from the University of Houston who sang the Star Spangled banner, God Bless America and Amazing Grace. She was a phenomenal singer.

After the entire crowd of new citizens had taken their oath, I was lined up to take a picture with the presiding judge. I looked up and saw the woman with the glassy eyes sitting on the bench waiting for her color card to be called. I never spoke a word to this woman, not even when we were at the interview waiting room. But for some reason, I was extremely happy for her.

THE PERKS OF BEING AN AMERICAN CITIZEN

The most exciting part of this entire process is knowing that I can now vote in the 2012 elections. I turned in my voter registration form immediately after the oath ceremony and will be exercising my right, as an American citizen, to vote-- first, in the Texas primary in May, and come November, I will surely be there.

Until then, cheers to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!

#photo

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