This Thursday morning — at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Detroit — I will take the Naturalization Test in order to become an American citizen. And, barring an unprecedented and unforeseen mental breakdown, I expect to pass. After all, the questions asked during the test are along the lines of “Who is our current president?”
And so by the late morning on Thursday, there is a 99-percent probability that I will be an American citizen. That is, in addition to being an Italian citizen. Oh, and also a citizen of the European Union.
In essence, I will technically be a tri-citizen — a citizen of two nations and of a supranational polity. That should make me a very confused individual and some might ask where my loyalties lie.
This raises a fairly existential question: Is citizenship simply a loyalty pledge or does it represent something greater and more meaningful? My experience seems to suggest the latter; that citizenship is representative of my individual and cultural identity.
As an Italian citizen, I know full well that citizenship isn’t about blind loyalty — I find myself criticizing Italy just as often as I praise it and I don’t consider this being disloyal. After all, when I criticize the Italian party system, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi or the Italian judicial system, I’m doing so because I feel that constructive criticism engenders progress. In this light, loyalty and criticism often operate in harmony.
When I reflect back on my Italian citizenship, I think about my childhood, my family and my culture. I think back to our chaotic Christmas family reunions where dozens of family members would squeeze into a little bourgeois apartment in Rome, greeted by copious amounts of food and desserts, laughing and gesticulating wildly while discussing politics and family issues. Often, the red glow from the burning tips of a few cigarettes would dance around the apartment like fireflies, diffusing a light haze that made the experience feel even more dream-like. And there I was, a child of no more than four or five, watching this play-like drama unfolding before me, soaking up its vitality as I ate some of the best food of my life.
When I move to consider my European Union citizenship, I think back to my time in Brussels, Belgium, which is the de-facto capital of the EU. I remember my experience attending a private British elementary school. For the first time, I was in the minority. I was no longer surrounded by native Italian Catholic students. Rather, my peers came from all over the world — they looked different, spoke different languages and held different social and cultural identities. The whole experience reminds me of the ideals encompassed in the EU motto, “United in Diversity.” We often didn’t appreciate the opportunities inherent in our differences — rather, we frequently argued, made fun of each other and formed cliques. Europe is more diverse now than ever and, just as with my elementary school experience, Europeans have yet to fully understand, accept and celebrate this diversification.
So I’m left to wonder what my American citizenship will end up representing. Just as it has taken me time to understand what being “Italian” and being “European” means to me, I’m sure that it will take me years to begin to recognize the significance of being “American.”
One thing I’ve learned, however, is that the identities symbolized in citizenship status aren’t mutually exclusive. By this I mean that my identity as a European is largely influenced by my Italian cultural perspective. And, just as I process my experience living in the United States through the lens of being a European immigrant, living abroad has allowed me to better understand what it means to be a citizen of Italy and of Europe.
I consider becoming a tri-citizen to be another step forward in this journey. It’s a geographic journey that has allowed me to live in three separate countries and five different cities. It’s a legal and political journey that has granted me the rights and privileges that accompany citizenship status. And it’s also been a personal journey, one that has forced me to better define myself as an individual and as a global citizen.
Thinking about it this way, I couldn’t be more grateful for what I’ve experienced. And it’s not over — on Thursday, everything will change again.
Tommaso Pavone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.