Becoming a Citizen in Sari, Sombrero, and Suit

It's so easy in our sophisticated, global, impersonal world to be cynical about national traditions and rituals, and to see in the ceremonies of our lives saccharin sentimentality. I am among those who often find flag-waving nationalism and "strongest-nation-in-the-world" rhetoric irrelevant and offensive. Still, there is something special about watching people of many nations take the oath of citizenship, as I did recently, in Baltimore.

They came to the expansive War Memorial building in beaded hats and simple headresses, in brazen sombreros and silk saris, in Sunday best and simple denim, in suits and shawls and tuxedo vests, in sandals and stilettos. They came in wheelchairs, with walkers, on the arms of their children, and with babes in arms. They were Asian elders, African mamas, Hispanic padres y nios. They spoke their private conversations in Hindi, Russian, Spanish, Urdu, Chinese, Arabic, and other mother tongues. And they had this in common: They were about to jump into the melting pot of American rights and responsibility.

They sat for over an hour, quiet and respectful. Not one child cried. And when the flag of the United States passed up one side of the austere auditorium, across the stage, and down the other side, there was absolute, reverential silence.

"This is a day of great pride and joy for you and your families, and for US citizens who welcome you," the friendly judge said. "You take this oath freely and with great purpose."

They rose then to pledge allegiance to their new flag and country, some clutching their letters signed by the President of the United States. A rich baritone sang "God Bless America" and "The Star Spangled Banner." And when the judge said, "The strength of our nation is in its diversity. That is strength in you," a few hands went up to wipe away a tear. Mine, I admit, was among them.

OK, I'm a ceremonial sucker. I weep at strangers' weddings, Hallmark card commercials, and Fourth of July parades. But I challenge anyone to attend a swearing-in ceremony when 310 people representing 69 nations become citizens and not shed a tear or two when the judge says, "You belong, and we welcome you." When a Russian father and son, a Laotian grandfather with a back bent almost in half, and a Ghanian woman in colorful head wrap all grin broadly and exchange congratulations. When wordless and wet-eyed sisters from El Salvador, who no doubt share secrets we can only imagine, embrace. It would be difficult, it seems to me, for the staunchest of cynics to resist the emotion of the moment.

Not only that: It would be downright un-American.

* Elayne Clift is an adjunct professor in the school of public health at Yale University, in New Haven, Conn. She lives in Saxton River, Vt.

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