86: The Citizens’ Daughter

86: The Citizens’ Daughter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

The Citizens’ Daughter

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.

~Author Unknown

Squinting to see my path in the Honolulu sun, I finally found the entrance to the building. Instructions told me to take the elevator to the fourth floor and to check in with security. I was to present a government-issued ID and have my bags scanned on the belt. This process done, I proceeded to the Ceremony Room decorated with the seal of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the words “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services” underneath. I had a flashback to the last time I had been in a ceremony room like this one more than thirty years ago.

*  *  *

“For goodness sake, Gwen. Sit down, please!” It was the last period of the last day of school in June 1983, and my teacher was clearly exasperated trying to keep a class of twenty third-graders quiet. Even I was unusually jumpy for “such a quiet and model student.”

“I’m sorry, Miss. I’m too excited to sit still.”

“And why’s that? Surely you can last for just thirty more minutes.”

I practically burst out of my chair. “My mommy’s going to become a U.S. citizen today!” I declared proudly.

My classmates looked on with mild interest as my teacher attempted to turn my story into the final teaching moment for the year. We had spent the last few weeks of school learning about immigration, and my classmates were used to the stories I passed on from my parents about growing up in another country called the Philippines. I was excited not only because my brother and I were going to do something special after school, but that for once my mother was home all day instead of working.

That afternoon, I stood with a gallery of other families as I watched Mom wave a little American flag in her left hand and raise her right hand to take the Oath of Allegiance. What I didn’t understand was why my mother had the biggest smile on her face, like she had won the lottery. I had never seen her so happy. The image of my mother standing there in a blue suit and red blouse made an impression on me that has lasted my entire life. Indeed, the older I got and the more I heard of my parents’ story in relation to the world around me, the more I understood why this day was one of the most important days of not only Mom’s life, but my own.

*  *  *

My mother and father moved to this country in the 1960s, part of the last wave of immigrants from the Philippines who came to the U.S. to study and fill professional jobs. They grew up in a country heavily damaged from World War II, but with strong American ties. Their first language was English. The Philippine school system was based on an American educational curriculum. The movies, clothes, pop culture, music, and everything they were exposed to was American. It was no wonder, then, that they had always wanted to live and raise a family in this country.

It wasn’t easy. Times were different back then for working women, especially those of color, and when my mother became pregnant with me after starting a new job, she panicked. She was certain that she was going to be fired. Fortunately, her boss was a very kind man who saw the potential in this young woman he had decided to mentor, and he let my mother work from home for a while after giving birth. Three weeks after I was born, my mother could be seen sneaking me into the office and hiding me under her desk so she could continue working. That man, Mr. Grossman, has been a family friend ever since.

My life would have been so different if I had not been born and raised in this country. And I ponder how much I owe the blessings in my life to not only my parents, but to the people who showed our immigrant family numerous acts of kindness throughout my childhood. From Mr. Grossman, who let my mother keep her job, to the neighbor who called for an ambulance when my grandfather had a heart attack, to the numerous women who helped my grandmother grocery shop — there was never a shortage of people who wanted to help and make us part of the community.

The kindness that I received growing up has inspired me to give back to my own community through volunteerism. I’ve been blessed to work with everyone from the homeless, to people with disabilities, to public-health advocates. But until that day in Honolulu a few months ago, I had never worked with immigrants.

I’ve never forgotten the sight of my mother dressed in red and blue — the one whose every decision in life was made for us. I’ve never forgotten the huge gift my parents gave to me in the form of an American birthright, and I’ve looked for a way to honor that gift in just the right way. So, when I saw a notification that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office was going to offer U.S. citizenship teacher training in Honolulu, I jumped at the opportunity to attend.

And that’s why, when introductions were made, I swallowed tears before I introduced myself as Gwen, the American-born daughter of naturalized U.S. citizens. In a few short months, I will be the one helping prospective citizens prepare for the interview and exam. It’s a decision I made with Mom and Dad in mind. And a decision I made to honor those Americans who showered us with such kindness and love. To this citizens’ daughter, the words “thank you” will never be enough.

~Gwen Navarrete Klapperich

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