On a rainy Sunday afternoon after early voting had started, just before going to the store for my weekly grocery run, I went to the polls to vote. The election this year was more tumultuous and more unique than any other that I can remember. From the moment I parked and got out of my car, I was bombarded with masked volunteers giving me information on who their organization is supporting, obviously in hopes that I would support the same candidates. Everyone in line stood 6 feet apart, in masks, some in gloves, waiting to do their part in selecting the 46th President of the United States. The scenario felt somewhat surreal, like it could have been a scene out of the movie Contagion.
Still, going to the polls to vote in person filled me with pride, joy, and gratitude at being a citizen of this amazing country, as it has every other year I voted. No matter the outcome of the election, the feelings remained the same. I hoped everyone would exercise their right to vote, despite the crazy circumstances of 2020.
Even though I’ve lived in the U.S. for 39 years, this year marks the fourth presidential election in which I voted. I was just as excited to do it this year as I was when I voted in my first presidential election in 2008, just a year after I got my citizenship.
On a bright, warm morning in September 2007, I put on the red and white floral blouse I had bought for this occasion, white pants, and a navy cardigan. I was headed to the Chicago Federal Building for my Naturalization Oath Ceremony and I could hardly contain myself. Two weeks prior I had taken my interview. After a few easy questions, while reviewing my application, the interview officer realized that I should have already been considered a citizen because my dad had gotten his citizenship before I turned 18. Likely not having understood the form he was completing, or by an oversight, he had forgotten to check a box that would have made me a citizen and prevent me from having to go through the process.
The day my dad took his oath, my brother and I had accompanied him to the same Chicago Federal Building in the mid-1980s. I was 12 or 13 years old; it was a hot summer day and the three of us rode the Metra downtown. I remember watching my dad take his oath, looking happy and proud, not a look I saw often on his face. He had promised us lunch afterwards. I was looking forward to seeing the fountain and the red structure that stood in front of the Federal Building.
After receiving his Certificate of Naturalization, we took the elevator down to the ground floor, and headed for the exit. I recalled seeing the grubby looking man sitting on the radiator heater when we entered the building before the ceremony. As we approached the exit, he stood and started yelling. “Go back to your country. We don’t need you here. Damn foreigners taking our jobs. Go back to your country.” He stepped towards us, and my dad immediately put his arms out as if to guard us. Up close, the man again yelled in my dad’s face. “I said go back to your country. You understand me?” My dad stepped aside and ushered us out of the building. We went on to get lunch, our moods deflated by the screaming man. We didn’t speak of the incident and went on to celebrate as if nothing had happened.
Fast-forward 25 years to the day of my oath ceremony, which would not be at all traumatic. When I arrived at the same Chicago Federal Building, I had time to grab a coffee and admire the red structure. On the elevator ride up, I was surrounded by several people, dressed in what appeared to be their Sunday-best. I felt underdressed. In the oath room, family members of oath-takers sat in folding chairs with flowers and balloons. The oath-takers huddled in a crowd at the front of the room. I don’t recall the words we recited but I clearly remember getting a little choked up and feeling proud and excited. I left the Federal Building, certificate in hand, without incident and proceeded to treat myself to lunch. When I returned home, I had red, white and blue congratulatory flowers from a friend waiting for me. It was an exciting day that meant I could have an American passport and I’d be able to vote.
Each time I vote in any election, I remember that day, and the day I arrived in the U.S. It was a cold February day in the early 1980s. My family waited for me with a winter coat, and on the drive home, I was delighted by the sight of snowflakes for the first time in my life. Growing up in India, America was an incredible place where I couldn’t wait to be. And, as an adult immigrant, who has become a naturalized citizen, I still feel the same way. Despite 2020 being what it has been, America remains an incredible country where women and men, no matter the background, have so many incredible opportunities available to them. For that, I am grateful to be living in America.