On a blazingly hot morning in July, 2000, I became an American. The ceremony took place thirty miles east of Los Angeles, in Pomona, at a venue ordinarily used for hosting the local county fair. It was a Wednesday, I remember, and I’d worn a pair of new shoes that blistered my feet. My husband was in the only suit he owned, the one he’d put on for our wedding. Ushers directed us to Building Four, where folding chairs were lined up in endless rows. The air smelled of cologne and cut flowers. I turned in my residency card, signed some paperwork, and posed for photographs. Venders hawked plastic folders for naturalization certificates. Then the audience fell quiet for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A judge rose to the dais and, before administering the oath, gave a homily about the rights and responsibilities that awaited citizens. I raised my right hand.
It was love that brought me to that moment. I’d fallen in love with a man, and in the process adopted his country. I was born and raised in Morocco, with its extraordinary arts, rich culture, diverse languages—and authoritarian rule. Every night, the eight-o’clock news on television began with an overview of the King’s activities: he held a council of ministers, he met with this prince or that President, he cut the ribbon to inaugurate a new hotel or golf course. Criticism of him landed tens of thousands of people in jail; many were disappeared, exiled, or murdered. The police, the judiciary, and parliament were little more than extensions of his power. If my father spoke about politics at the dinner table, my mother would tell him to lower his voice; the neighbors might hear.
Though I had many disagreements with the policies of its government, America was also, for me, an idea, a constant struggle toward a more perfect union. Long before I set foot in the United States, I studied its Constitution and its history. Still, I spent weeks studying for my citizenship exam. My husband helped by quizzing me while we were eating dinner or washing dishes. How many voting members are there in the House of Representatives? Four hundred and thirty-five. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Thomas Jefferson. What stops a branch of government from being too powerful? Checks and balances.
Sixteen years later, I have a family and a home here. But while my life is in many ways happy and fulfilling, it has never been comfortable. America embraces me with one arm, but it pushes me away with the other. At the airport, I’m regularly singled out for a “random” pat-down or an additional security screening. At cocktail parties, I can always count on one inebriated soul to marvel at the fact that my family “allowed” me to have an education. When I give book talks, I’m often asked about Islam and terrorism, the two subjects often intertwined in the questioner’s mind.
In December, 2015, just five days after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, Donald Trump, then still a reality-television star and real-estate billionaire struggling to distinguish himself from the dozen other Republican candidates for the Presidency, released a statement on “preventing Muslim immigration.” It called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering our country until our representatives can figure out what is going on.” The statement was remarkable for its clarity, and yet journalists, politicians, and the public immediately began to debate the intention behind it, as if the words themselves could not be counted on to be an appropriate reflection of it. Did Trump mean this literally? Should he be taken seriously?
Last week, he signed an executive order that banned all refugees from entering the United States for a period of a hundred and twenty days, and banned visitors and green-card holders from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen from entering the country for ninety days. (Syrian refugees were banned indefinitely.) The order took effect immediately, stranding passengers who were already en route to the United States, and breaking up families by separating husbands from wives, brothers from sisters, daughters from mothers. None of this seemed to matter to the President or his aides, who took to calling the executive order a “travel ban” rather than a Muslim ban, even though it targets Muslim countries only, makes exceptions for Christians refugees, and exempts Israelis born in Iraq and Iran. The ban was just a form of extreme vetting and a temporary measure, the President’s press secretary insisted, as if people stranded abroad could simply reapply for entry in three or four months. But, in that time, what will happen to their jobs in America? Their homes? Their families?
While these lives were being destroyed, the President logged on to Twitter. He called the coverage he’d received in the Washington Post “false and angry”; asked for “somebody with aptitude and conviction” to take over the “failing” New York Times; belittled Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain as “weak on immigration”; mocked Senator Chuck Schumer as “Fake Tears”; and fired Sally Yates, the Acting Attorney General, who refused to defend his ban in the courts. Chaos continued at airports, with some Customs and Border Protection officers following court orders that stayed the ban, and others refusing to comply with them.
I have seen this story before, in the country where I was born. There, too, the law was applied arbitrarily, dissenting public servants were removed from office, and journalists either repeated what they were told or were treated as the enemy. At the moment, some of my friends, colleagues, and neighbors can no longer leave the United States for fear of not being allowed back. My own family worries what will happen to me if the ban is expanded to new countries. “What will we do?” my daughter keeps asking me. “What will you do?”
I’ve protested the President’s ban and donated money to the A.C.L.U. and other civil-rights organizations. I call my congressman and senators every day. But I am under no illusions about what the future might hold for us.
Citizenship ceremonies are still held at the Fairplex in Pomona—every year, thousands of people take the oath there, just as I did. The fairgrounds once served a different purpose. During the Second World War, it became an assembly center for thousands of Japanese-Americans—people who had committed no crime, but whose President designated them a danger through an executive order. From the Fairplex, these Americans were transported to an internment camp in Wyoming, where they were held until the end of the war. Last summer, a plaque was installed at the Fairplex to commemorate them. It reads, “May such injustice and suffering never recur.”
Born and raised in Indonesia, my education on American culture was limited to Hollywood flicks, sitcoms and McDonalds ads. Nevertheless, I maintained a fascination for America and realized that, even with such a lopsided education, we Indonesians care so much about what is happening in America. I understand the language; I know the colors of the flag, and I used to wear an American flag outfit proudly — something I avoid now that I live in America.
However, in Indonesia, it seems there are two sides: those who love America like it is their own country and those who despise America as if their relatives had been killed by American soldiers. Yet even this second group quietly dreams of living in, or at least visiting, America. Personally, I somehow ended up having a serious love-hate relationship with America.
The longer I live in the States, the more I know about the nature of Americans, which I absorb from interacting with people around me and avidly reading the news, both print and digital. Unfortunately, the people in my circle are not really in synch with me politically, including my husband.
When I met him in Bali in October 2004, political affiliations were not part of the conversation. We talked mostly about ourselves and how we could make our future work.
Then, later, after I had permanently moved to Arizona and gotten married, I had still yet to catch on to his ideology. I was too busy navigating the changes in my life: moving to the US, exchanging wedding vows and being pregnant with my first child — all in the same year.
After some time had passed, I realized it was not enough for me to just stand on the sidelines, gawking at America as if it was not a part of me. I needed to make a serious effort to try and understand it.
I started paying more attention to American society and politics. This dawning realization was spurred on in 2008 when Barack Obama ran for president.
I did not know much about American politics, but I had firm views on big issues, such as immigration, gun control, gay marriage, abortion and healthcare. To a certain degree, I supported Obama because I despised his opponent, John McCain and McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin.
This became a problem when I discovered my husband was a registered Republican, who proudly voted for Ronald Reagan (and not so proudly for George W. Bush). “Oh my God,” I muttered to myself.
Despite the fact that my husband is an educated Republican and not an ultra conservative who watches Fox News, the frictions between our ideologies are inevitable. The bumper sticker Women for Obama made him cringe. “Please don’t put that on your car. You can keep it at home, not in our bedroom though,” he said.
When Obama won in 2008, my husband was upset. He tried to be positive by saying, “That’s OK, I’m glad my wife is happy!” When Obama won the election again in 2012, he did not even try to hide his anger.
I squealed joyfully when news reports showed Obama winning Ohio, which basically sealed the deal for the popular Democratic nominee, but my husband did not take it well.
“What the f**k!” he yelled, followed by angry outbursts. His reaction was shocking to me, and I realized I had not completely registered that our political views were as different as night and day.
I have since learned that America is not as liberal as I thought. Like most Indonesians, I perceive America as the liberal nation promised and embodied by Paul Krugman and every Huffington Post reader. I am often taken aback by the statistics. For example, there’s a huge number of Americans who are against women having the right to choose an abortion and those who refuse to accept the legalization of gay marriage.
Slowly, I start to feel that America is not the place for me, especially living in a red state, Arizona.
When I heard about the tragedy that befell Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, I was outraged.
“I hate it here,” I said. “This would never have happened in Indonesia. Do you know why? Because we don’t sell guns! Only bad guys and cops have guns. Common citizens fight with knives or throw rocks at each other; they don’t buy a gun at the neighborhood store and start blasting away, killing kids at school!”
I began to be selective about my news reading. I am still an avid reader of liberal media, but I get sick of how both parties twist the news to fit their own agenda. As a former journalist, I am ashamed to admit that I would rather read Entertainment Weekly than The New York Times or watch 30-minute sitcoms rather than CNN’s headline news.
After a decade of living in America, my view on America has changed. I am still trying to find the balance between the bad and the good. I celebrate the freedom to dress myself in any outfit that pleases me without being harassed. However I worry about things, too. “What if one of my daughters’ friends takes his parents’ gun and brings it to school?”
Today I realize how silly it was to hang an American flag in my bedroom when I was in high school, but I am here now. While I am here, I might as well learn to love America, my Republican husband and the fact that the sitting government is supported by my husband’s political party who are trying to eliminate immigrants and refugees — my kind of people.
I want the America that was promised to me in my childhood. I feel shortchanged because now I see that everyone and everything is not so beautiful in the Land of the Free. I feel I have escaped from the imprisonment of Indonesian traditions into the dangerous jungle of American freedom where I am as free to show however much skin I want as I am to pull a trigger.
Uly Siregar is an Indonesian writer and journalist. She teaches at Mary Lou Teachers College in Arizona, where she lives with her husband and three children.