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I should have been a US citizen by now. A year ago, I blocked out a weekend to work on my application for naturalization. It took me three uninterrupted hours to complete several forms and another hour to comb through details of my life that I don't clearly remember, such as where was I on October 6, 2019. Instead of filing it immediately, I decided to wait a week and carefully examine every detail again. Thinking back on it, I likely did this less for due diligence and more to imagine how proud it would make my mom. Upon hearing about my bureaucratic work ethic, she would say, "Wow, for the first time in his life, he completed a piece of mundane but important paperwork without making a mistake." But, I promptly forgot having ever worked on the application. Tasks like these come back to me when I'm prompted with contextual clues, such as the immigration line at Montreal airport that I encountered a month later. When I logged back in to submit my application, I noticed it had disappeared. I realized that USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) deletes applications from their system if they are not completed within 30 days of starting it.
I sat on redoing the application for another 7 months. When I sought absolution from my therapist for procrastinating, she suggested that the problem might be that I was scared of losing my identity as an Indian. I laughed and proceeded to submit the application the following week. Perhaps out of spite for her suggestion. I guess therapy works.
Last week, I completed the second step in the process - submitting my biometrics to the USCIS. When I got in the Lyft to take me to the location for my biometrics appointment, the driver, who was Sikh, enquired with a familiarity in his voice, "USCIS?"
The familiarity became more deep-seated in the timbre of his voice when he asked, "Fingerprints?"
We did not exchange another word for the rest of the drive. It felt as if, under the guise of sharing transactional information, we had just communicated about 200 years of colonialism and globalization man.
The USCIS office in Oakland is located in a strip mall of unremarkable offices in a block that could be anyplace, anywhere, USA. It reminded me of something I learned about US expats in other countries - the neighborhoods they live in are down to the detail replicas of suburbs in a Middle American city. As we pulled in, I was confused to see a line outside the USCIS office that looked eerily similar to a line outside a village office in India. Perhaps sensing my confusion or used to this routine, the Sikh driver reassured me in his best Indian uncle voice, "Just go stand in line."
As I stood in line, I noticed that I could tell Indians apart from other South Asians by the sheer amount of paperwork they carried compared to everyone else. They have always been overzealous about paperwork. I say they because I've never had this affliction when it comes to bureaucracy, much to my own detriment. There is a good case to be made that I am seeking amnesty in the United States because of the amount of paperwork required to simply exist in India. On this day, I carried precisely the one piece of paper that the USCIS asked me to bring.
The occasion of my biometrics was also marked by a couple of other oddities:
Several signs outside the office asked visitors to refrain from using their phones, yet a woman in line was playing the Barbie theme song out loud. Was she trying to prove her worthiness to be in this country?
USCIS had a TV inside the office that played America's funniest home videos. Did they get someone to do user research on the content that a potential American citizen might like? I'd say they got it spot on since America's funniest home videos are one of my earliest cultural memories of the US - one of the view American exports that transcends language, status, and lacking in any kind of irony.
The monitor on which I saw my fingerprints being captured had a Superman sticker on it. Was that subliminal American messaging, or did the elderly Asian woman who took my fingerprints really like Superman?
My faith in this country was rewarded with an appointment that took hardly 15 minutes. On the way back, I got another immigrant Lyft driver (of course I did). As I got in the car, he enquired, "fingerprints?"
I replied with a deep-seated familiarity, "Yes."
He told me he had got his citizenship in 2019. "I waited until I got the passport to go back to Afghanistan." he paused to take a left turn and then continued, "... but by the time I got the American passport, the Taliban had come to power…I never went home after" Then he laughed. A sincere laugh as if he had gone through all the stages of grief and then irony and then arrived at the joke.
"I've not been back in six years," I said, trying to empathize.
"Why don't you go?"
"Too much paperwork," I deflected. I realized I’ve not really dwelled on the answer to that in all these years.
Perhaps sensing this, he switched topics to things he knew all South Asians to be competent in, such as arranged marriage and what computer languages his son should learn to get a job.
When we got to my destination, he said, "Take care and be careful of American women", as if I was James Bond and he was Q, warning me not to get distracted on my mission. I laughed it off but skipped that part of the story when I recounted the tale of my USCIS trip to my girlfriend.
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