Coming to America Panel Explores Citizenship

Her Americanized vernacular presented in a lilting French accent, Professor Martine Guyot-Bender remarked to those in the Science Center Auditorium on September 9 that “language matters.” This subtle vocal enmeshment of the two cultures was just the beginning of a discussion that focused on what it truly means to be a “citizen” of a particular country – in particular, to be an American. The seminar, titled “Coming to America: Citizens Here and There,” assembled a panel of five foreign-born faculty members, all of whom have coped with feeling personally divided between two or more countries.

Language matters because the meanings of certain broad terms – like “citizenship” – change over time and frequently differ between people. After all, how does one actually define citizenship? Citing the dictionary, Guyot-Bender explained that the word “citizen” has three dimensions: the first pertains to one’s right to claim protection under the law, the second pertains to one’s active political participation, and the third pertains to one’s cultural identity.

Though Guyot-Bender was born and raised in France, the matter of her citizenship was never simple; she admitted to having felt like a “borderline citizen” even in her native country due to her grandmother’s German heritage and her grandfather’s Belgian ancestry. She eventually moved to the United States in 1985 and became a legal citizen in 2000: she wanted to vote where she paid taxes, and she did not want to lose her social security after retiring. But Guyot-Bender mentioned that she would not have gone through the naturalization process if she had been forced to give up her French passport; this was a common cultural dilemma for foreign-born residents that would be further expounded upon by the upcoming panelists.

“You have to describe yourself every time,” said faculty spouse Ayfer Candeger in a soft but noticeable accent, referring to the typical barrage of probing questions such as “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” Born and raised in Istanbul, she came to the U.S. at 16 and has spent her whole adulthood in the States. Candeger, who considers herself a foodie, described her immigrant experience as a stew: “ingredients from Turkey but cooked in America.”

“I have very American friends or very traditional Turkish friends,” Candeger continued, noting a symptom of the polarized world she has inhabited since moving to the U.S. She noted that there was (and still is) a conflict between “who you ‘should’ be” and who you “want to be,” between what’s considered “right and wrong.” Recounting her experience applying for citizenship, Candeger said that she was reading through the necessary paperwork for naturalization when she stopped at the last page. On it was an oath to renounce absolutely all foreign alliances and offer your services as a civilian to the government if required – even if those services included acts of espionage against your former homeland. Part of the current American climate, she suggested, is that one is thought to ‘should be’ either an entirely American citizen or not at all.

Professor of English Onno Oerlemans, who was born in the Netherlands, explained to the audience that he “moved quite a lot.” His family relocated to Canada when he was four, and then moved to progressively smaller towns – living, at one point, in a village of only 20 people – and as a result Oerlemans did not have a solid national or cultural identity. He mentioned feeling “vaguely Dutch growing up,” mostly because he “didn’t know what else to belong to.”

After marrying a fellow professor, Oerlemans took a job at the University of Ottawa while his wife worked at Hamilton, an international set-up that felt somewhat “cosmopolitan.” However, after commuting became too much to handle, he chose to move to Hamilton (and, by extension, the U.S.) for good. Ultimately Oerlemans related his personal sense of citizenship to “picking a team,” especially during the times when it was preferable to label yourself as an “other.” Tongue in cheek, he noted that it was more preferable to label oneself Canadian during the rough patches in America’s recent history. It was an “easy way to suggest resistance,” to allow oneself to sometimes “sit on the sidelines and snipe.”

Kyoko Omori, associate professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures, began by stating that she has been living in America for 19 years. While she has a “permanent” green card, she must still renew it every 10 years – this is because she still retains her Japanese citizenship.

Omori noted that a particularly strong Japanese tradition is that family is supposed to exist as the center of one’s life. And though she has open-minded parents, she wondered if it still wouldn’t be difficult for them to wholeheartedly accept their daughter as a legal (and cultural) outsider. After all, both Japan and America have histories in which they consider the “enemy as subhuman.” Through a brief slideshow, Omori presented WWII political cartoons from both countries: those from the U.S. depicted the Japanese as either apes, bugs or children, whereas those from Japan depicted President Roosevelt as a gruesome beast and people abroad as monsters.

Omori also poignantly noted that she hasn’t felt “quite Japanese enough or quite American enough,” instead occupying some culturally vague “third space.”

Nigel Westmaas, assistant professor of Africana Studies, began by observing that citizenship is an identification of self that basically disregards one’s environment – perhaps because both national identity and culture are things that one can carry within. Retaining some Dutch ancestry, Westmaas was born in Guyana, a place where an American green card can be an object of envy and where immigration refusal rates by the U.S. embassy are some of the highest in the world. Citing some of his native country’s history, Westmaas noted that the drive to enter the United States increased dramatically after social and economic problems began to affect Guyana, which located on the coast of South America and also part of the Caribbean.

Westmaas keenly noted that sometimes people experience a feeling of nervousness or disconnect with an alien, which may be a sign of the common cultural clash that affects many foreign-born residents and those around them. But he concluded by stating that “Caribbean citizens adopt the norms and laws of a receiver country but keep a reserve on their old country”, underscoring that while citizenship may mean several things – many of them purely legal matters – perhaps its most important meaning relates to one’s cultural membership in whichever society, that warm sense of belonging.
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