On Independence Day in 2000, I was sworn in as an American citizen in New York.
It was a historic euphoric day for me. But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you – it was also painful.
Looking around me, I noticed a Puerto Rican mother smiling while blinking back her tears next to her little girl fidgeting with the American flag. I was getting choked up too, watching her clutching the child’s hand to stay still for what was to come – standing up straight, putting a hand over the heart, stating a pledge of allegiance, and singing the national anthem.
“I’m becoming an American….” I remember that low and lonely whisper to myself while deeply aware that no one from my family was standing next to me.
Neither my parents, brother nor sister sought a different life outside of a tight-knit business-dominated environment in Hong Kong. They seemed quite content with the social norms that surround them. They are emotionally grounded in the city’s past and financially invested in its future.
In the 1970s when Hong Kong became a major manufacturing hub in a booming economy, my father followed in his father’s footsteps building their budding company in textile import and export. As the family business grew, my mother and brother also joined in to help out. My little sister meanwhile was happy staying right at home, meeting the demands of Hong Kong living, and enjoying what the tourist paradise is most famous for – shopping and dining.
I certainly knew no better growing up in a culture that stresses conformity. We were all bounded in the same bubble; I had no other mental models around me. But everything started to shift when I became aware of the TV box ignored by everyone during the day. The moment I switched it on, my world completely changed.
I turned to television to seek respite from the over-crowded city in an over-structured every day life –school, after-school tutorial, dinner, after-dinner homework. With each daily TV dosage over time, I was ingesting a richer and wider array of multi-vitamins for my imagination. What intrigued me was this whole another world of being and becoming. I was exposed to cartoon characters solving problems and having fun with magical tricks, lively students debating or joking with teachers in sit-coms, strong women working alongside smart men to fight crimes in dramatized scenarios, and perhaps most impressionable for me – those intimate and articulate bedtime conversations between lovers in soap operas. Wow, what a wonderful way to be and become – more open, more expressive, more creative, more alive. Of course, these were all on TV, not real.
But they represented a different way to exist and co-exist, a different way to learn and to live. Once I became aware of that world, I started visualizing and moving in a different direction, apart from everyone else in my family.
As I prepared to take my next step in life after high school, I looked to America as the land opportunity for my future. I applied to college, applied for jobs after college, and I kept knocking on doors that were open to me. Over the years, my mind would also become more open as I interacted with a broadening spectrum of people from different cultures and backgrounds with an infinite variety of interesting thoughts and fascinating ideas. Perhaps that’s why America, with its ever-expanding set of social and economic problems, continues to be a magnet for immigrants. Many strivers, like me, seek to shape a better life for themselves, different from what they can back home.
The day I received the official letter granting my application for U.S. citizenship, I called home to explain to my dad what I had done.
“Is that necessary? Why do you need to be a U.S. citizen?” My father always approached every issue from the standpoint of necessity – a classic businessman’s calculation.
Knowing that I needed to speak in a language (not only in Cantonese, but also in cultural context) that he might understand, I explained my reasons in terms of benefit.
“It is more convenient for my travel, dad. I travel around a lot and it’s more convenient to have an American passport.”
My father replied with silence. A silence so long that I remember I sensed discomfort bordering on disapproval. But ultimately, my reason convinced him. In that moment, I realized that even though my dad had never been to America, his mind and spirit were very American. He understood the value of travel and exposure, freedom and independence, and respected my choice to be different. He let me become free from a culture that expects conformity. He enabled me to shape a life that belongs to me.
In allowing me to become who I wanted to be, he’d also broken free from that same societal norm that gave him every right as the father to be authoritarian or dictatorial towards his daughter. But he didn’t. He chose to listen and to accept me for what I aspired to do.
On this Independence Day, I want to salute my father.
Without his approval, I am not truly free. The pain that I felt the day I became an American citizen is no longer with me. I have accepted that my choice to set sail did not mean that I have abandoned them; they chose to stay ashore. We are a family no matter what we choose. We are still bounded in the same bubble – by blood and love. That’s all that matters.