I was born on the island of Curacao, a Dutch territory in the Caribbean. After high school, I studied and taught computer science at various American universities. I had an immigrant’s visa, a so-called “green card.”
By the way, it’s not actually green.
When I applied for U.S. citizenship, about 15 years ago, I discovered that the process of becoming “Americanized” is a long, drawn-out affair. First, I needed to fill out numerous complicated forms. These were mailed to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, accompanied by various foreign credentials such as my birth certificate, details about my current passport and even a notarized statement by the U.S. consul in Curacao that I was not some kind of troublemaker.
One of my many nephews on the island had no trouble getting that for me.
Turned out he used to scuba dive with the consul down there.
Three months after mailing in the initial set of forms, I received half a dozen additional forms to fill out. There was no end to the paperwork. The final hurdle was an interview combined with a little examination to test my knowledge of American government and history. It seemed to be a mere formality. They even provided me beforehand with a list of possible questions.
Even so, the prospect of any exam has always made me tense and edgy. I am an extreme worrier who likes to be 200 percent prepared. I began by spending a few months on the study of American history, going back as far as the earliest inhabitants who more than 10,000 years ago supposedly came from Asia over a land bridge across the Bering Strait.
Incidentally, I read recently that some exciting new theories about those first Americans have been proposed.
I familiarized myself thoroughly with all aspects of the Revolutionary War as well as the Civil War. I became an authority on the Constitution. For a while, I even concentrated on the laws and statutes pertaining to the city of Charleston.
As it turned out, I need not have done all that studying and worrying. After inviting me into his office in the federal building downtown, the examiner began by asking me if I knew what “Schwarzenegger” meant; probably confusing Deutsch with Dutch. I think Austrian-born Arnold had just entered the political arena. I explained that the name meant “black ploughman” and not “black negro” as some people seemed to think.
He then asked me if Schwarzenegger could ever become president. “No, the Constitution says a President has to be a ‘natural-born citizen of the United States.’ That’s the exact phrase.” He gave me an appreciative little nod and proceeded smoothly to some routine questions.
About 10 minutes later, the man informed me that I had done “just fine.” As I was getting up, immensely relieved, I just could not resist slipping in one of my dumb jokes.
“You know, the Supreme Court has never actually ruled on the precise definition of ‘natural-born citizen.’ In fact, some people think it might mean that people born by cesarean section are not eligible to become president. They’re not ‘natural-born,’ get it?”
He looked up from the stack of official papers on his desk. “Sir, you should not make jokes about the Constitution. It’s in extremely poor taste.” The sharp reprimand kept me awake for quite a few nights. I was sure I had blown my chances of becoming a citizen.
A month later, however, at an emotional ceremony in a Columbia courtroom, we, about 50 brand-new citizens, pledged allegiance to the “Flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands.” I think many had tears in their eyes. I know I did.
Jan Beaujon is a retired professor of computer science and statistics with a doctorate from the Medical University of South Carolina. He first came to the United States in 1959 as a student at New York University. He lives in Charleston with his wife, a native Charlestonian.