"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Becoming an American

By on July 23, 2018 in Articles with 3 Comments

By Jackie Stonas

I grew up in a small Canadian town — very similar to Wenatchee actually and Hwy 97 ran through the middle of our town, too.

I was surrounded by orchards and rolling hills, a few mountains and a lot of Canadians.

My first memory of anything “American” was getting a quarter that didn’t have the queen’s face on it. How could that be? I asked my dad and he laughingly told me it was an American quarter and that it was actually worth slightly more than our Canadian quarters.

Our family was not anti-American by any means but we were Canadian through and through. We were taught to be very proud of our flag and our courteousness. I grew up with jokes that the punchline always brought home that when Canadians and Americans were compared — the Canadians were the “nice” ones.

“A Canadian always asks if he can do something and an American tells you what he is going to do” was another saying that I heard a lot growing up.

And then the hands of fate started turning and my best option for a high school was across the border near Spokane. Armed with a student visa, my parents bravely drove me across the border and I was now in the world of money that looked like it belonged in a board game surrounded by people who I assumed would now tell me what they were going to do.

The first few trips back and forth to home always had emotional moments for me.

Driving north and arriving to the Canadian border and seeing our flags made me feel like I was arriving home and then leaving to return to the USA always panged at my heart a little.

I followed my high school friends to an amazing University in Walla Walla extending my student visa and my USA life. Studying Elementary Education, I always assumed I’d return to Canada and teach in my hometown and that my time in the U.S. was just a short adventure. I adore my parents and a house close by with eventual grandkids to drop in with sounded ideal.

Jackie Stonas joins 108 other soon-to-be-citizens pledging their allegiance to the U.S.A.

All very ideal right up until a handsome American boy entered my life and my heart and put a ring on my finger.

This new husband of mine owned property near Seattle and it was decided that we should spend our first few years there. We followed Seattle with a few years in Spokane and then in 2003 we settled in Wenatchee.

At this point we had three young girls to call our own.

I shied away from any political conversations because there never was a point — I couldn’t vote — therefore why would I take the time to have an educated opinion? I received jury duty requests many times and I always returned my card saying, “I’d love to serve but I’m a Canadian.”

Then one day, I was visiting my parents with my kids and when I crossed the border to return to Wenatchee the U.S. agent was particularly chatty. “What were you doing in Canada?” to which I replied, “taking my kids to see grandma and grandpa.”

He then said, “And where is home for you?” and without missing a beat I said “Wenatchee.” After several more light-hearted questions he handed me back my passport and said, “Welcome home.”

I had immediate emotions. As I drove away and was tucking my Canadian passport into the glove compartment I found I was wiping a tear. I was contemplating what he said, “Where is home for you?” and that without missing a beat I had said Wenatchee.

As a student I had always responded to that question, “My home is in Armstrong, B.C. but I live in Spokane.” Such conflicted emotions that he was actually correct — I did feel this time — for the FIRST time I was aware of, coming into the USA actually DID feel like I was coming home.

And “welcome home” just had felt so heartwarming. I realized I loved the familiar highway speed signs like 60 mph instead of 100km/h and gas prices are supposed to be in gallons and not litres, aren’t they?

I wrestled with emotions the entire way home. How disloyal I was being to Canada. What would my family think if they knew I felt this way. I had always harbored some secret thought that my family would move “home” and now I realized that we already were home and I had honestly had no desire to relocate.

When I was laying in bed that night I told my husband that I was going to apply for citizenship and he strongly encouraged me to do so. But I couldn’t pull the trigger. When it came right down to it I was ready logically but not quite there emotionally.

In 2012 I took my three girls on an amazing adventure. We moved to Kampala, Uganda for three months.

The second day we were there I got a taxi and toured my kids through the capital city of Kampala. Our goal was to find the embassies. “Here is the American Embassy,” I said, pointing to a long flat-roofed building surrounded with high fences and marines holding machine guns and wearing berets walked along the front on patrol.

“If anything EVER happens while we are living here in Africa and we get separated I want you to flag down a taxi and tell them to take you to the American Embassy and you do whatever you can to get inside those gates. They will help you.” I told my girls.

I was imagining the scene from The Saint where Elisabeth Shue runs for the gates yelling, “I’m an American” and they open the gates for her in the brink of time.

And then we drove a little further and found the Canadian Embassy — a small building with no fence and no military presence outside. And I said to my kids, “And this is where I will go.”

And then in my mind I pondered. I would have rather known that I could go to the U.S. Embassy, too. My heart would not wish our family to be separated if there was a conflict. But would the U.S. Embassy have opened the gates if I were yelling, “I’m a Permanent Resident Alien?” Somehow, I don’t think so.

Returning home, life was a typical whirlwind and the thought of naturalizing was far from my mind.

And then one final incident set the process in motion.

Our family had been on a wonderful Caribbean cruise and as we came down the final gangplank at Galveston, Texas, we felt like we were walking on air. Talking and laughing we entered the immigration line and when it came time for our family to be cleared I realized I hadn’t brought my green card along.

I had ID, had my Canadian passport but my actual green card was safely at home and not with me. If we would have been listening to a record player at the moment I could have imagined that the turntable just slowed until the music was distorted and then finally still.

I was unkindly whisked off to a room and treated harshly for not bringing along such an important document. In this day of technology I had to wonder why the actual card was so important? I could see on the official’s computer screen an exact copy of my missing card. Why couldn’t he just do a fingerprint match?

He had all my information in front of him but yet the fact that I wasn’t holding the physical copy of it didn’t allow me access to the country that I now felt was my home. As I waited in that room I finally understood why Americans have such a poor reputation on how they treat foreigners.

A Russian wife was separated from her family and the husband told that she would be flown back to Russia for not having the correct paper work. He was weeping and wanted to say goodbye and they wouldn’t let him.

A Jewish family who held every correct document was being interrogated mercilessly. I said to the officer helping me, “I have a plane that leaves in six hours to return home. Is there anything that I can do? Is there a fine I can pay? Could I just enter the country as a Canadian and than when I get home I’ll drive my card to a customs agent and get cleared that way?”

When he was done laughing he told me I would most certainly miss my plane and that no, this ridiculous idea was not an option. He did tell me there would be a $700 fine and it was payable only in cash. I sent my husband to go to the ATM silently grateful that we did have $700 cash sitting there to draw from.

I told my kids that when Daddy got back I wanted them to all go with him and catch our plane and I would figure out how to get home when this mess was all cleared. I didn’t want to pay for new plane tickets for all five of us.

And then unexpectedly with no warning and no reason the situation changed and the agent came to where I was sitting in the waiting room and handed me my Canadian passport telling me I was free to leave. They were going to make an exception for me. No fine. Just go.

Trust me I went. As fast as I could. I caught up with my family and we all flew home together.

This experience was jolting for two reasons — the first I realized that I REALLY needed to apply for citizenship and the second was that this country I wanted to join was not always lovely and kind. And I needed to wrap my mind around joining them anyway.

I applied for citizenship on April 17, 2018. It was very slick and easy — the form was available online and took about 30 minutes to fill out. When it was submitted I immediately got a receipt telling me I could expect the process to take 13 months.

Three days later I received a notice asking me to come to Yakima on May 5 to be fingerprinted.

I arrived at my appointment in Yakima 10 minutes early. It took me two minutes to clear security and I immediately went to the window where I was helped pleasantly, courteously and efficiently.

This was a biometrics appointment. They were double-checking that they had my fingerprints accurately in the system and they took a photo to go on the naturalization certificate. My entire appointment took five minutes and I was already on the road back to Wenatchee before my scheduled appointment time.

I assumed it would be several months before the next step but on May 18 I got notice that my interview was scheduled for June 1. I had exactly two weeks to study for my civics test.

There are several academic requirements to becoming a citizen. One is to understand directions in English that are simple. “Please close the door,” “please sit in this chair” are examples. Another is to have some knowledge of how the government works demonstrated on a civics test.

I was provided with 100 questions and answers related to U.S. history and government. They would choose 10 at random to ask me and I had to get six correct.

Some of these questions are easy: “Name a state that borders Canada” or “Who is the current president?” But others are harder like “Who authored the Federalist papers?” or “How many U.S. representatives are there in the house?” or “How many years does a senator term last?”

I printed these out as flash cards and anytime I drove anywhere with anyone I asked them to quiz me. I can say with certainty that I knew all 100 answers within a few days.

The day arrived for my interview — at this point I was only six weeks from the date of application.

I dressed in one of my favorite church dresses, was incredibly nervous and set out on the Wenatchee to Yakima drive. I arrived 30 minutes early this time and was taken into my interview 10 minutes later.

The interviewee immediately put me at ease. She was friendly and welcoming. She asked me my civics questions and after I got the first six correct, indicating that I had passed, she stopped. I queried her to ask me all 10 just for fun but she laughed and shaking her head said, “Everyone says that!”

I proved that I could answer simple English instructions and she also directed me to write a dictated sentence. She asked a few random questions and then said that she was going to recommend that I become a citizen. She also said that the ceremony would be back in Wenatchee the end of June.

I was shocked. Everyone I had spoken with had come back to Yakima for the “swearing in” portion of the process. How exciting to have it in my hometown.

Calling my parents to tell them where I was in the process and that it was now almost official was daunting. “You have done fine living in the US for 20-plus years with your green card. Why the need now? Does that mean you don’t love Canada anymore?” were some of their concerns.

I reassured them as best I could and explained the reasons that had brought me this far, assuring them that I wasn’t renouncing my Canadian citizenship or heritage but was just adding to it.

The day of the ceremony arrived. June 26, 2018. A far cry from the 13-month time frame I had expected. It had been nine weeks. I had nerves like the day of graduation and on my wedding.

Each oath ceremony is different, so I had no idea what to expect. Myself along with the other “almost citizens” sat in the front rows and family and friends sat on the sides and behind us. Moments before it started someone slipped around to where I was sitting. It was my eldest daughter holding a bouquet of roses for me.

The ceremony began with the presentation of colors, the singing of the national anthem, and proceeded with several inspirational speeches about the importance of pursuing education and learning English.

I learned that our group of 109 potential citizens represented 14 countries from around the world (Denmark, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico to name a few). Then we stood and raised our right hands and said our oath to the United States of America.

As I held my right hand up repeating the words I could feel a few tears sliding down my face. This was IT. This was the moment. My emotions were impossible to describe.

Following the oath, the song and video “I’m proud to be an American” was played. How fantastic was that. “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free. I won’t forget the men who died and gave that right to me…”

This was now my history. The brave colonists who declared their loyalty to a new America and a disloyalty to Britain were in danger of being hung and yet they took that chance. The men who fought wars both physically and mentally on behalf of the U.S. These were now the heroes that built MY country. It was overwhelming and the tears flowed again.

For years I have said the pledge of allegiance. I was the game announcer for several volleyball seasons for my daughter’s school. Every time I led the crowd in the pledge my girls would find my eye and smile — knowing that this wasn’t my flag and they would tease me that maybe I should cross my fingers while I said it.

But now — in this moment at the ceremony we stood and faced the flag and I said it for the first time where it actually DID apply to me. “I pledge allegiance…” Yes I DO! I said in my mind.

And then the ceremony was over and we all filed past the immigration table where we were required to relinquish our beloved Permanent Resident Alien (Green) cards and given a certificate of naturalization. Aliens no more but citizens forever.

I couldn’t stop grinning and laughing.

And then an overwhelmed feelings as I turned and saw all the dear friends who were there to support me. I’m still finding out people who were there who came that I hadn’t glimpsed in the crowd but well over 50 people that I know of at last count. So heartwarming and such a reminder that this IS my home.

A wonderful party at our house with all these friends was the perfect way to end the day.

And the happily ever after?

I found that I actually do have political opinions. And I will perform my first job as a U.S. citizen in the near future — by voting for a Chelan County judge. And without doubt, celebrating the Fourth of July last month took on an entirely new meaning.

And how to describe the transition in my mind?  It’s like I was living in this country as a really good friend and am now adopted into the family.

Oh it feels good to be home.

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There Are 3 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Allie says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey and your struggle and your ultimate acceptance of the challenge of being a US citizen!

  2. Marc S. says:

    Awesome, Jacqueline! So proud to know you and consider you a dear, close friend.

  3. Wonderful web site.Lots of helpful info here. I am sending it to a few pals ans additionally sharing
    in delicious. And certainly, thank you to your effort!

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