Humor: Becoming American

Before you officially can be as American as, um, hockey and maple syrup, you must first pass the test—if you can. Steven Hayward takes a humorous journey through the process.

We moved to the United States 17 years ago. My wife and I are Canadian—from Toronto originally—but we’ve been green card-holding, permanent U.S. residents ever since with no intention of heading back. Somehow, though, we never got around to becoming citizens.

“What are you waiting for?” people would ask.

The answer was nothing. We weren’t exactly waiting. People assumed our heel dragging was a sign of our Canadian-ness, that we feared becoming American might mean we’d love maple syrup less and football more (or, at all). It wasn’t that. The reason I wasn’t a citizen was the same as why every room in my house looks like it needs to be painted. I’m just lazy.

Eventually, like she did with the painting, my wife took matters into her own hands. She located U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Form N-400 Application for Naturalization, answered its questions, asked me the same questions and mailed it off to Homeland Security.

“Now what?” I asked.

“Now we wait,” she said. “And study for the test.”

The test, she explained, was the citizenship exam—100 questions about American history and civics that you need to know before you can become a citizen. “Relax,” she told me. “No one gets the whole 100. You’re asked 10, and you have to get six right. Even you can do that.”

In the movie version of this article, the sound of a person screaming will be audible. That person will be me. Tests make me nervous. When I’m nervous I forget things—and do badly on tests. It doesn’t matter what the test is on. I’m that guy.

Then there was the problem of knowing nothing about the subject. Growing up in Canada, my main source of information about America was the Schoolhouse Rock! series broadcast over the border from Buffalo. I could sing the preamble, but that was the extent of it. I felt like that little Bill stuck on Capitol Hill, hoping and praying he’d become a law, but mostly worrying about being shuffled off with the sad old Bills who would be stuck for the rest of their lives in Congress. Or the Senate. Or whatever makes laws in the U.S.

“Do you actually not know?” my daughter asked. “How long have you lived here?”

“What do you call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?” asked her brother.

“The Big Ten?” I said.

“What’s Benjamin Franklin famous for?” asked our youngest.

This one I knew. “Discovering electricity,” I said.

Also the wrong answer. While there were a number of correct answers on the exam about Franklin—he had been a diplomat, the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention, first Postmaster General—none involved electricity.

There was no doubt: I needed to study. Hey-ey-ey, as the Schoolhouse Rock! song goes, learn about the USA. In the movie version of this article, there ensues a training sequence not unlike those that appear halfway through the Rocky movies. Only a lot more civics and a lot less situps and one-arm pushups.

Becoming American steven hayward citizen humor
Illustration by Kevin Reed

Finally the day arrived. We received our notice from Homeland Security. Our three American kids gathered on the driveway to wish us well and took the opportunity to quiz us one last time. “Who’s our U.S. Representative?” my daughter asked.

“David Sanborn?”

“Doug Lamborn is the answer,” she told me. “David Sanborn plays sax on Bowie’s song ‘Young Americans.’”

“Amendments to the Constitution?” asked our youngest.

“Twenty-seven,” I said, without hesitation.

“How’d you know that?” my daughter said. “And not anything else?”

“Twenty-seven was the number of Darryl Sittler, former captain of the Maple Leafs,” I explained.

“Maybe don’t say that in the test,” advised my wife.

We arrived at Homeland Security in Denver a full two hours ahead of schedule. We checked in and waited, and waited and waited some more, and by the time my number was called I was a nervous wreck. My interviewer was a female USCIS agent about three inches taller than me. “Are you nervous?” she asked me.

I said I wasn’t, in a high-pitched falsetto.

“The first thing we do is take the test,” she told me. “It used to be the last thing, but people would be so nervous that they couldn’t remember their own name, much less the name of their congressman.”

“David Bowie,” I said, without thinking.

“I love David Bowie,” the agent said. “But that is incorrect. You’re lucky, though, as this is not the actual test. I’ll advise you when the test has started.”

“That’s a relief,” I said.

“The test has started,” she said. “The first part tests your ability to speak and write English.” She presented me with a piece of paper and instructed me to write the sentence: “All citizens can vote.”

I began to write and hesitated at the word citizens. Does it actually have a z in it? I wondered, Or does it just sound that way? Maybe it’s an s? In Canada there’s a lot of British spelling! Why didn’t I study this? What made me want to take this test in the first place?

“Take a shot, Prof,” said my examiner.

I’m not sure what I actually wrote, but it was close enough. Then it was time for the civics test. “How many amendments are there to the Constitution?” she asked.

I nailed it. “Twenty-seven,” I announced. And didn’t mention the Maple Leafs. Not once.

In the end, my wife and I both passed and drove back to the Springs triumphant. It’s all over but the oath—which we’ll be taking soon. When we arrived, our American kids were waiting in our American driveway. We were really and truly home.

Read More