NOT QUITE by Ada Cheng, Ph.D.
On May 27th2015, my guests and I arrived at the USCIS building in downtown Chicago right before 1 PM to attend my citizenship ceremony. There was a long desk inside the entrance of the ceremony hall and three agents were sitting there. When it was my turn, the first agent took my green card and my notice. The second one examined them and threw them into this big yellow envelope while the third one checked my name off a list.
My heart sank when I turned in my green card. This was the only legal documentation in my possession to prove that I was documented or legal in this country. At that moment, I was without any documentation. I suddenly became an “illegal” in the eyes of the state. I started to panic as I walked into the big hall, where hundreds of immigrants like me had already been seated. It was very scary to be with hundreds of people without legal documentation. It was as if we were waiting for our collective sentence. Theoretically, any one of us could be arrested, locked up, and deported right there and then. But deported back to where? It has been more than two decades since I left Taiwan in 1991. I have family there, but it has not been my home for more than two decades. Going back there is not going home. But then where is home?
My heart pounced every time an agent walked toward my direction. I kept thinking to myself: Is this all a trap? Is the agent going to tell me something was wrong with my application and they changed their mind about naturalizing me? Did they not believe me when I told them during the interview that I didn’t torture anyone, that I didn’t engage in genocide, that I did not intend or attempt to overthrow the US government, that I was not a communist, that I was not a terrorist, that I was never in prison, that I never committed felonies, that I was not a gambler, that I was not an alcoholic, that I did not abuse any drugs, that I didn’t force anyone to have sex with me, and that I didn’t solicit sex?
Suddenly, I saw my guests enter the hall and take their seats. After a few minutes, the director walked up to the podium and announced that the ceremony would begin. I felt a sense of relief. When we were watching the documentary, the narrator talked about how fortunate it was that we, like previous generations of immigrants, escaped war, poverty, and political and religious repressions, to come to this country to pursue the American dream. I immediately felt terrible that I invited my colleague to the ceremony. You see, my colleague was a 70-year-old African American man. His ancestors didn’t come to this country voluntarily. What was my celebration was not necessarily his to have even though he was very happy for me. Our stories were connected yet very different.
I got through the ceremony and eventually received my certificate of naturalization. This certificate has two numbers. It has the number for the certificate: 37439481. It has another number: A097781560. Do you know what that A stands for? I didn’t even realize the significance of these two numbers until when I tried to apply for the Affordable Care Act health insurance in December 2016. They asked for both numbers on the application when I identified myself as a naturalized citizen. That A stands for alien. That’s my Alien registration number. A number I carried for decades before becoming a citizen. You see, those numbers are for registration, and there is always a registry for aliens. I am forever reminded of my Alien status every time I am asked for them.
Most people would assume that the process of naturalization enables immigrants like me (let me be clear, a very privileged one) to assimilate into this country, become part of this country and finally be home. I have contributed to this country by educating young people at the university for 15 years. Here is the irony. Not as a citizen, but as an immigrant. First on my H1B visa and then with my green card. This country has entrusted immigrants with many of her most important jobs, including raising children, caring for the sick, and educating young minds, yet we are forever unwelcome. As much as I try to blend in by achieving the American dream, this country or shall I say this government is never going to let me forget that I am indeed an Alien and I will forever be one.
So this is my American journey. My American dreams pursued and achieved, but I am still not home.
Shu-Ju Ada Cheng
Ada Cheng is a professor-turned storyteller and performing artist. She has been featured at storytelling shows in Chicago, Atlanta, Cedar Rapids, New York, Asheville, and Kansas City. She debuted her first solo show, Not Quite: Asian American by Law, Asian Woman by Desire, in January 2017, which later received a great review from Washington Post. She debuted her second solo show, Breaking Rules, Broken Hearts: Loving across Borders, with Fillet of Solo in January 2018. In addition to performing it at The Exit Theatre in San Francisco in June, she will also bring it to the United Solo Theatre Festival New York in October this year. Ada is the producer and the host of the show, Am I Man Enough: A Storytelling/Podcasting Show, where people tell personal stories to critically examine the culture of toxic masculinity and the construction of masculinity and manhood. She is also the co-producer and co-host of Talk Stories: An Asian American/Asian Diaspora Storytelling Show, a show that features Asian/Asian American performing artists and storytellers. Her motto: Make your life the best story you tell. Her website: www.renegadeadacheng.com.
**Special thanks to Ricardo Arechiga for his graphic design of the project logo**