My mother immigrated to the US from Korean in 1961. She was a tiny, 19 year-old powerhouse with a 10 month old baby girl, a fairly good grasp of the English language, and a love for my father that defied her family, her culture, and all common sense. I was that 10 month old baby, and according to family lore, I was a cranky, colicky baby who shrieked non-stop all the way from Seoul to Louisville, Kentucky. We were greeted in Louisville by my beloved Granny, my aunt whose first name I bear, and my Grandpa. According to the tale, I immediately stopped crying, reached out for Granny and never gave my mother a second thought, nor shed another tear.
Nearly nine years after our arrival on American soil, my mother became a US citizen. I was in second grade, and the story of her journey from Korean to American is one that the two of us shared every step of the way.
When I was in first grade, my mother and I were watching TV together when we saw a public service announcement reminding all "Permanent Resident Aliens" to renew their green cards. I asked my mother what an "alien" was, and she said wistfully, "Me."
She looked pained. I asked if I was an "alien" too, and she told me that since my dad was an American, even though I was born in Korea, I was an American, too. She explained that my younger brothers were both American because they had been born in America.
My mother told me that anyone who was not born in this country was
considered an "alien" unless they became a citizen. She confided in me
that she wanted to become a citizen, but there was a test, and she
didn't think her English reading and writing skills were good enough to
I hit upon an idea. Now that I was in school, I could teach her to read and write. I was an early reader, and excelled at spelling and grammar. I asked my teacher for extra copies of my worksheets and to be allowed to take my textbooks home "so I could practice." The teacher either thought I was an apple-polishing suck-up, or the most dedicated student she had ever met. I don't think she suspected that the real student was a proud 27 year-old woman with three children.
In the middle of first grade, the teacher pulled my friend Jenny and me aside during our weekly visit to the school library. She told us that since we were both exceptional readers, from now on, we weren't limited to the first grade section. We would now have the equivalent of an "All Access Pass" to any book in the library, even the fifth grade chapter books and texts. Leaving my classmates to the rows of picture books and Dr. Seuss, I made a bee-line to the nonfiction, and found books about American history and biographies of famous Americans. I took them home and read them with my mom.
Every day, I came home from school, and my mom and I would review my spelling words, write sentences, and read from my Dick and Jane readers. We discussed the adventures of Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, and Puff, and the history books I checked out from the library. We read the newspaper together, and when we hit on a word neither of us knew how to pronounce, we asked my Dad.
When my dad was not home, my mom would copy the word on a slip of
paper in her tiny, neat brushstroke handwriting. I would go across the
street and ask Mr. Allen, the man who ran a small convenience store. He was the smartest person on the block, since he
was a) a business owner; b) had an entire set of the World Book
Encyclopedia; and c) he had graduated from junior college. In our blue collar
neighborhood, that made him the equivalent of a Rhodes Scholar.
I would hand these puzzling words to Mr. Allen. Under the ruse that I was there just to buy some penny candy, I would casually ask him if he knew the word and what it meant. One day, he peered at me over his reading glasses and said, "Why would a little girl like you need to know what 'insurance' is?"
"It's for school!" I said blithely. He eyed me
suspiciously, and sounded it out for me, then told me what it meant. I
skipped back across the street, and told my mother.
This went on for several months, until my mother gained enough confidence to fill out an application for citizenship. A few weeks later, she received a book in the mail, a slim paperback volume of sample questions, and points of American History that she was to prepare to be tested on.
She studied the book around the clock, and my dad and I quizzed her. "What are the three branches of government?" I would ask.
"Executive, Legislative and Judicial!" Mom replied.
"Who was the 16th President?"
"Abraham Lincoln!" she answered. Then, just to show off, she'd say, "He signed the Emancipation Proclamation, you know."
I didn't know exactly what those words meant, but I knew that she got the answers right, each and every time.
When the day of the test arrived, we drove her to the County Building to drop her off. She seemed nervous, but my dad assured her she would do fine. I peppered her with questions from the back seat, as my 3 and 4 year old brothers squirmed beside me. We dropped her off and Dad took us for hamburgers to wait for her to finish. We picked her up an hour later, and she got in the car with a pouty, defeated look on her face.
"So, how did it go?" my dad asked optimistically.
She sighed dramatically, then broke out into a wide grin and said,
"Piece of cake!" My brothers and I clapped from the backseat.
Soon after, she received a letter from the INS telling her that she had passed, and that her naturalization ceremony would take place the following month. She was thrilled. She showed it to my dad, who lifted her off the ground in a bear hug. She showed it to the neighbors, to our unknowing reading tutor, Mr. Allen, and to my dad's family. We were all so proud.
The letter also informed her that the county did not have a Korean flag that was needed for the ceremony, and asked her to bring along a small one. Evidently, she was the first Korean to be naturalized in Hamilton County, Ohio. She didn't know where she would find such a thing, and called one of her brothers in Korea and asked him to send one as soon as possible. She also told him the news that she was becoming an American citizen. A few weeks later, the flag arrived in the mail, just in time for the ceremony.
On the day of the ceremony, I got to skip school to attend the ceremony. My grandparents, my dad, my mom and I drove to county courthouse for the ceremony. We entered the courtroom of the Judge who would preside over the proceedings. There were six people becoming Americans that day, two Canadian children, an Irish woman, a Greek woman, an Italian, and my mom. They took their seats at the big mahogany tables normally used by plaintiffs and defendants in trials, and in front of each stood the flag of their home country, including the one my uncle had sent from Korea. We sat in the first row of the gallery, just behind them.
While we were waiting for the Judge, a thin, wiry man came over and knelt down next to me and said, "Why aren't you in school, young lady?"
"Because my mom is becoming an American today, and I helped her study for the test!" I'm not sure he believed me. He chuckled and patted my head.
The man smiled and asked my name and wrote it down in a long, skinny notebook. He asked me if I was proud of her, and I said of course. He introduced himself to my grandparents and my dad and took a seat when the judge entered the courtroom. I didn't know who he was or why he was so curious about me. For all I knew, he could have been the truant officer and was going to bust me for playing hooky from school.
Even though nearly forty years have passed since that day, I still remember the courtroom with its polished benches and tables, the judge's ponderously high bench with the seal of the State of Ohio behind it, and the feeling that I was witnessing something of great significance. I think that maybe the tiniest seed of the notion that I might be a lawyer someday was planted in that courtroom, bearing witness to my mother's transformation from alien to American.
After the Pledge of Allegiance, the Judge gave a very eloquent speech about citizenship. He spoke about what it means to be an American. He that citizenship was a privilege not to be taken lightly and with citizenship came responsibility, the responsibility to vote and add their voices to the mix of the democratic process. He said that the United States is "a nation of laws and not men" and that they would have rights and freedoms here that were not always present in other countries.
After his speech, he asked each of them to stand and raise their right hands, and swear their allegiance to the United States of America. When all of them had finished taking the oath, members of a Girl Scout troop came and escorted them up to exchange their home country flag with American flags.
Afterwards, they were all photographed for the local newspapers. We hugged
my mother, and I think there were more than a few tears of pure joy shed that
day. I felt that the two of us had accomplished something monumentally
important, and that somehow, our lives had changed for the better, now that we were an American family one and all.
The following day, we opened the Middletown Journal, our local newspaper, and found an article with the headline, "SECOND GRADER BEAMS AS MOM BECOMES US CITIZEN." The man who had questioned me the day before was a reporter and decided that his "angle" was the fact that this naturalization was a family affair, and that my mom was teaching me a valuable lesson in citizenship by bringing me along.
My parents and I chuckled about the article when we read it. That reporter didn't know the half of it.
PHOTO: My mom, my brothers, and me in 1969, the year my mom became a citizen.