Becoming an American in 2020
Just about every presidential election cycle, a handful of celebrities swear that they will quit the United States if their preferred candidate doesn’t win. Most seem to say they’ll move to Canada. Of course, the promises—or threats?—almost always turn out to have been hyperbolic.
This election year, I’m doing the reverse: I am a young Canadian who, after having spent much of my youth and early adulthood in the United States, has this year become an American citizen. I have no intention of giving up my love of hockey and poutine, but in mid-May, I pledged to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and collected my certificate of naturalization.
It’s quite an interesting year to become an American. Needless to say, I knew before the moment I raised my right hand that the United States, like all countries, had many problems. America’s flaws were hardly secrets, but many of them—a dysfunctional government, enduring injustice, and declining legitimacy at home and abroad—have been on full display in recent years, and quite intensely in 2020.
So why not go back to Canada? Why become an American? Why make America’s problems my problems?
I did not have a good answer for a long time. As a Canadian, it’s not like I was seeking asylum or fleeing oppression. When my family first moved from Saskatchewan to Texas in the early 2000s for my father’s work, I did not understand why we left one wealthy country to live in another one that seemed plagued by serious social problems. I went to American schools, read American books, and watched American movies, but in the end, only other Americans in a pandemic and a period of national protest could teach me about American exceptionalism.
In high school, I enjoyed the required government course so much that I decided to study government and international relations in college. Since starting college, though, it has been outside the classroom, from my fellow college students, where I have learned the most about what makes America exceptional. While American undergraduates are not known for their patriotism and many of my peers claim they despise America, they clearly demonstrate that they love other Americans.
The political philosophers, historians, and sociologists who argue that a kind of rugged individualism is at the heart of the American character aren’t entirely wrong, but the familiar caricature of the individualistic American—someone ruthless doing whatever it takes to get ahead—does not match the reality we can see all around us. When the administration of my university sent students home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of my friends and classmates returned to frightened siblings, laid-off parents, and ailing grandparents. If there was ever a time where narrow self-interest would be socially and morally acceptable, it would have been this spring. But the isolation-induced breakdown of social bonds that some commentators anticipated did not occur. Instead, friendships deepened, and new ones formed. Social media—typically a bastion of self-aggrandizement—transformed into a hub for offering free meals, empty couches, and FaceTime calls to talk about life. As generations of Americans before them, people my age put their communities first in a time of crisis. Which is to say that, as Tocqueville pointed out long ago, American individualism is not about a simplistic autonomy but is fundamentally rooted in community.
In 2018, while still in college, I applied to teach a civics class at an underprivileged Austin high school. My idealism led me to believe I could teach kids to love democracy. In the first class, I encountered some of the most cynical teenagers I have ever met. For these kids, the only thing that felt longer than this class period was the list of problems with American society.
These students had a perspective on America very different from that of the suburban kids with whom I had taken civics lessons in high school. They did not accept America as it is. Instead, they dreamed of and believed in a brighter future. Sure, as young people, they leaned left. But even as they spoke about injustice and dysfunction, they judged their visions of a better society by how it would strive to realize America’s ideals. These high schoolers from South Austin taught me about patriotism: not wave-a-flag and grill-a-hot-dog patriotism but a true, sincere desire to forge a more perfect union.
As I waited months for my citizenship application to process, I told friends, professors, and even strangers about the upcoming milestone. I looked forward to a naturalization ceremony surrounded by my Canadian family and American friends. When I received a notice to attend an expedited ceremony with no guests allowed because of physical-distancing guidelines, I mourned the missed opportunity to celebrate with the people who had taught me the most about being American: other young people.
When I, along with just nine other Americans-to-be, raised my right hand in a large room that would normally have held dozens of oath-takers, I thought about these friends. I thought about what they have done for me and what I may be lucky enough to do for them. The immigration officers were eager to get to the next ten soon-to-be-Americans, so they hustled us out of the building before any of the new citizens could take the classic first photo in front of the stars and stripes. I regret missing the chance to participate in this tradition of Americans-by-choice, but I do not regret taking the oath of allegiance even in the most politically turbulent year of my lifetime.
Yet after my paperwork was finalized and I officially became part of this messy experiment in liberty, I still sometimes found myself asking “Why America?” The tragic death of George Floyd just a few days later, and the widespread unrest that followed, forced me to wrestle with this question once again. The bad news is that I have much more to learn. The good news is there are more Americans to learn from. Putting aside the other controversies about the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones is right when she writes that “Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. . . . It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”
I grew up as a white immigrant who often easily passed as American. As a kid in customs lines and immigration offices, I observed that I was treated better than most foreigners and many birthright citizens. I lived the American Dream as an American for hardly a week before I was reminded that the American Dream—the dream that anyone can come from anywhere and do anything—is for too many Americans just an illusion. Yet illusion or not, it has drawn people from every corner of the world. This possibility, or at least hope of a possibility, is immensely powerful.
Each generation of Americans before us has sacrificed and contributed immensely to make such moments of opportunity possible, and these very moments are part of what makes America exceptional and exciting. As John McCain wrote in his farewell letter, “Nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”
The past and present Americans who create these pivotal moments make me proud to be an American, too—and even more proud to be a young American. I hope one day to make my fellow Americans proud of having shared this country—and all its imperfections and its hopes—with an idealistic kid from Saskatchewan.