Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Stranger in my own Country

It is a done deal! Together with 1,995 other smiling persons of 114 different nationalities I became a US citizen last Friday here in Houston. Naturalization was a long 14-month process that ended with a very short yet memorable ceremony when we all raised our right hands and swore allegiance to the constitution, the flag and the laws of the United States. Thomas Jefferson would have loved to have been there. I bet he would have been surprised at the diversity and thrilled to see so many young, vibrant people among the new citizens. I am very grateful and honored to be able to call myself a citizen of the United States of America, the greatest country in the world.

My U.S. passport application is already being processed and I will hopefully have it within the next 10 days. It is going to be such a relief not to have to worry about expiring resident alien cards & passports, for the next 10 years! As of right now, I am still a South African citizen but as soon as I get my new passport, I will be completing the required paperwork to give up my South African citizenship. The reason is quite simple: the South African authorities require South African citizens to enter and leave the country on a South African passport. As a US citizen I am not about to travel on any passport other than one issued by the US State Department. So I really have no option but to give up my SA citizenship.

Of course, having lived in the US for the last 18 years now, my bonds with South Africa have been tenuous at best, lately. I barely follow current affairs over there and I couldn’t pick the players on the country’s national cricket team out of a police line-up if my life depended on it. Which is not to say that I want to walk away from my past. I may no longer dream in Afrikaans, but I still speak it. I will always be a ‘boykie from Brits’, proud to have grown up in a small town in what was then known as the Transvaal Province. No matter where I am in the world, I will always be close in spirit to my dear mother, brothers and sister and many friends and relatives still living in South Africa. Not a day goes by in my life that I do not think of them, wonder what they’re doing, and regret not being able to spend more time with them.

Even so, I have moved on and my life is here now. I wake up nights worrying about the value of the US Dollar, not the price of gold. I wonder whether Barack Obama will be in the White House next year, not if Jacob Zuma will soon be spending six months of every year in lovely Tuynhuys in Cape Town.

I realized that the ground had shifted under me, about 8 years ago during a visit to South Africa. All week I had felt different. It was a struggle to drive on the left, and the issues of the day were distressing. Rampant corruption. Crime seemingly out of control. Unscrupulous politicians. And then it came to a head. I was standing in the Hyperama, a gigantic grocery store in the Menlyn Shopping Center on the east side of Pretoria, when it dawned on me that I had become a stranger in my own country. I was stocking up on some items that were hard to find in the US, such as Redro fishpaste (an acquired taste!), Marmite, Flakes, Crunchies, Turkish Delight, Provita crackers, some mealie meal and Rooibos tea. As I moved from aisle to aisle, my sense of alienation became more and more palpable. I eavesdropped to snatches of conversation between other shoppers, and couldn't relate to any of it. I looked around in vain for a familiar face, something, anything to re-connect me to this place that I once called home. It got worse. I struggled to understand the cashier, and the money may as well have been Roubles for as much trouble as I had with the denominations and especially the coins. Earlier, I had no idea how to respond to a 'car minder' who gratuitously offered to watch over my car in the parking lot. Clearly, I was no longer from there.

This was baffling and disconcerting. Was I not the same person who had lived just down the road for several years? Who had had two children born in this city, who had traveled down these self-same streets a thousand times? Of course I was, but everything else had changed and I was not a part of that process of transformation. My South Africa was gone forever. It is not easy to lose one's country, which is what happened to me that September day in Pretoria. Now finally, I am able to put that behind me and take the next step towards becoming a full participant in the affairs of my new country.

Running has been going gangbusters: I finished last week with a total of 37 miles, which was a good step-back week after 5 consecutive weeks of around 40-plus miles. On Saturday morning I did about 8 miles with my marathon group, including a 1-mile time trial (6:24) which confirms my VDOT of 45, according to Jack Daniels' formulas. The VDOT reading is the same for my most recent 5K time (22:51). As you may know, once you have your VDOT # it is easy to establish realistic training intensities. According to Daniels, someone with a VDOT of 45 should run easy and long runs at about 8:58, the marathon pace is 7:57 and tempo or threshold pace is 7:25. I prefer an easy or long run pace that is slightly slower at around 9:20 pace, at least until it gets colder in the Fall.


Fishmagic said...

Congratulations, and welcome (even though you've been here for 18 years) It's nice reading your perspective, because sometimes I take my citizenship for granted.

BTW, I once yucked it up in Lord Jim's Pub in Rio De Janeiro with the South African rugby team.

Pat H said...

Bert, this is check out my blog from time to time, The Running Life. Anyway, wanted to say a BIG CONGRATS! I knew the date was coming for you and was thinking about you and the whole process.

Vegan_Noodle said...

What an amazing life experience! Enjoy your new US citizenship! Hopefully I'll be able to congratulate you in person at a vegan meetup sometime soon!

Go Annie said...

Congratulations Bert on your citizenship! I didn't realize how many things I missed here, until I lived elsewhere. Welcome home :)

Amy said...

Bert, thanks for visiting my blog, I was rivited by this post of yours! One more thing we have in common - both longterm expats. I have lived here in Belgium for the past 19 years. I have often thought about taking on Belgian citizenship, as my roots grow more and more firmly attached but have not yet made the firm decision as you did. Congratulations on your new citizenship! And all the best to you on your Boston quest! I'll be sure to check back often.