Under the Sun
A fair dream endures of American citizenship
THEY described themselves as descendants of the founders of America, tracing their roots to the arrival of English Puritans on the Mayflower nearly four centuries ago.
Family members were proud of their heritage, recounting lineage generation by generation, noting marriages of originals with more "recent" settlers who added new blood to the clan. The fact that all could be considered immigrants had been obscured by passage of time.
From their perspective, my claim as a third-generation American seemed fresh, a bit spare and a point of curiosity. When I first met these Connecticut Yankees, they had so many questions about grandparents and country of origin, parents and citizenship, language, traditions, important holidays, religions and cultural observances.
The interest was mostly benign, though some remarks -- like how having a Japanese middle name was "cunning," and being sent to Christian churches must have been "confusing" -- bordered on hurtful.
Distasteful comments were limited to small things they thought strange. I remember horrified grimaces about eating raw fish and seaweed. (This was long before sushi was "discovered" as an exotic delicacy for adventuresome palates, only to be ho-hummed now as fare as common as egg rolls.)
This experience came to mind as I chatted with a woman who is working to become an American citizen. She was born on a Pacific Island and had minimal education before coming to Hawaii to live with relatives.
Like many who see the United States as the land of uncompromising opportunity, she imagined life would be far easier here than in her home country. But getting a job that paid enough for her to be independent wasn't easy, especially because she didn't speak English well.
Get an education, she was told, so she did, earning a high school diploma and studying hard to sharpen her language skills.
And still that wasn't enough. Working as a store clerk at minimum wage hardly paid the bills and even though the man she married also brought home a paycheck, they wrestled with rent, utilities, a car loan and mundane living expenses. When she became pregnant, money became tighter.
Get more education, she was told, but she wasn't sure which way to head. Scanning job ads, she saw that health care was a field that offered lots of openings. She checked vocational schools, and over seven years saved a little here and there for tuition.
She works full time, attends classes in the afternoons and nights and in between takes care of her family and household chores. In two months, she'll graduate and receive certification and though she already has a job, what thrills her is knowing she will be able to get a better one.
Her regret is that she has had to cut short her time with her son and her biggest pleasure -- helping him with his homework and reading together. Every lesson, every word he learns, she says, are pieces of hope that he will thrive in America.
What's left is becoming a citizen. She is already a U.S. national, but wants to be able to call herself an American. She wants to belong to this country and for the country to belong to her.
She acknowledges that her path isn't as rocky as that of others she has read about in the newspapers, the ones who walk hundreds of miles through deserts or who've paid to be packed into trucks and trailers to cross the border for menial jobs that pay little.
She is sympathetic, but believes that laws must be obeyed. Illegal immigrants offer themselves up for exploitation and exploit the system, she says, and that's unfair to people like her.
As a new American, her viewpoint will mesh neatly with that of many others -- from the Mayflower and on.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org