9/11: The Patriotic Call of an American Frenchman

Cover of "9/11 [Region 2]"

Cover of 9/11 [Region 2]

I used to love being a Frenchman in America. For over twenty years as a legal resident alien, I enjoyed my American family, career and lifestyle. Still, I felt smug with the knowledge that I was very much a Frenchman, watching the world around me with the ironic detachment of an outsider, and the cynical amusement of, well, a Frenchman.

I officially became eligible for citizenship more than two decades ago, but didn’t have much incentive to give up my more ambiguous permanent resident status. After all, as a resident alien, I enjoyed most of the privileges of a U.S. citizen. I could seek almost any job, I was eligible for Social Security, and my children could run for President. Overcoming the disappointment of not being able to serve on a jury because I was not a full-fledged citizen was quite easy.

For years, when occasionally asked about my naturalization status and why I had essentially remained a visitor in this country for so long, I would explain that I didn’t have the time to go through the drawn-out, bureaucratic process to which resident aliens have to submit in order to obtain citizenship. But the truth is that I enjoyed the freedom of hand-picking the defining values, attributes and stereotypes I liked most in French and American societies, and of making them mine without ever having to make a formal commitment to either.

On a sunny and crisp September morning, ten years ago, things changed.

After 9/11, like so many New Yorkers who watched the towers burn with their own eyes, I began to seek ways to address my sense of loss, fear and anger. Clearly, nothing I could do would ever bring back a lost spouse, sibling, child, or friend. Nor could it ever restore anyone’s lost sense of innocence or security.  Still, I became obsessed with wanting to “do something” meaningful.

And so, I finally decided to make a commitment to America. I spent several hours filling out the long U.S. naturalization application that asked if I had EVER been a member of a terrorist organization (has an application ever been returned with a check in the “Yes” box?) or whether I had “worked for or associated in any way with the Nazi government of Germany between March 23, 1933, and May 8, 1945” (I am a baby-boomer; did they mean in a prior life?) I mailed in the application with my $310 check. I conscientiously studied the assigned materials for the U.S. history and civics exam required of all applicants (no, New Zealand was not one of the first thirteen states). And finally, after long months of waiting, I found myself in a downtown Newark federal building, taking my final Naturalization Oath under fluorescent lights in a non-descript room.

Almost a decade later, not much has changed as a result of my newly acquired citizenship status. I have a new passport (same mug shot). I have been called to serve on jury duty. I have also come to understand that it is entirely possible to be an American and still prefer soccer to baseball. Or to voice strong misgivings about U.S. foreign policy or our broken government without having to be French. In fact, it isn’t just possible; it is exactly what America is about.

It may not be much of a gesture in the face of terrorism and tragedy, but I have finally made a commitment. I am no longer a Frenchman in America.

I now proudly call myself an American Frenchman. 

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