I was on the New York subway, midway through my commuter playlist and a couple stops away from my destination when a woman sat in the seat beside me. She had tons of bags, to which she wedged between my legs and hers. Her right elbow constantly nudged me from 145th Street to 59th Street as she raised it to scribble something on a crumpled up stack of paper she held in her trembling hands. I would be lying if I didn’t admit her nudging me was irritating. I hate riding the subway and I am most definitely not fond of human contact. As her bare skin rubbed up against mine, I attempted to maneuver my body in a position that would create negative space between us. It didn’t matter though; everytime her pencil touched the paper, her arm went up and incidentally hit me. It wasn’t until we were held up at 125th Street awaiting the doors to close, that I hesitated from rolling my eyes to glancing at the piece of paper she was so intently focused on. It was a study guide or quiz of some sort. The nosy side of me leaned a little closer in. Question 1 read: what do the stripes on the American flag represent?
Is this really what it takes to be an American?
This woman, who looked a little over forty was studying for the citizenship test immigrants take to be granted a Visa in the United States. I suddenly abandoned my irritability concerning her arm jabbing mine. Trying not to draw too much attention to myself, I went back and forth glancing over at her study guide and the worried look she had on her face as she whispered each question and answer to herself and marked it with her pencil. Silently, I went over the questions with her. Who was the first president of the United States? George Washington. We went to the next question. What are first three words of the Constitution? We the People. And so on and so on. Some answers we – me silently and her with soft whispers – went over quickly and others we both got stuck.
Sure, some of these questions might have been easy to me; in fifth grade, I had countless tests concerning the Constitution and U.S. Presidents. Although she was much older than fifth grade, I assumed some of those questions were easier due to her consistent studying and dedication. But then there were questions that neither of us knew. I could feel her stop and drill the answers to those questions harder. I also leaned in closer to see what answers she had previously scribbled in the blank space beside the question. She didn’t know it and neither did I. In that moment I giggled to myself. I wasn’t laughing because this situation was any way comical, but because I wondered, is this really what it takes to be an American?
I guess that question has already been answered, but if that’s the case, how many of us are truly, 100% American? There were plenty of questions that I got wrong. I forgot who the president was during the Cold War and mistakenly jumbled up how many years a U.S. Senator holds in office. But I was still a citizen. I might have been quizzed on the subject matter in school, but when I got those questions wrong, I received nothing more than a couple of points off and a letter grade that symbolized my academic merit. One question wrong for this woman symbolized her ability to stay in America.
A recorded 38 million immigrants are living in the United States, many of them seeking full citizenship.
I watched the woman even closer as she turned through pages and pages of questions, answers, and notes in the side margins. I felt myself looking beyond the physical aspect of her sitting beside me. I wondered if she had a family. Did she have kids? How long had she been here without citizenship? How long had she been studying for this test? I knew my questions would never be answered. I took my eyes off of her and her paper in fear that she would notice me. But with my eyes elsewhere, I couldn’t keep my mind off of the subject. Since 2008, a recorded 38 million immigrants are living in the United States, many of them seeking full citizenship. Although one million of those immigrants have been naturalized, there a millions more who have not been granted that luxury. It occurred to me that there might be other women on this subway studying for their citizenship.
I had never been asked to validate my patriotism or knowledge of American History. If I was asked to sing the National Anthem, I’m sure that I would get a significant number of the lyrics wrong. I was born here and had the legal documents to prove citizenship. That’s all I needed, yet my subway seat mate at this point, had a much higher level of patriotism, a knowledge of the National Anthem I’m sure, and the only thing holding her back was being born somewhere else. It didn’t make sense, but that’s just what it was.
My playlist cut off and my subway stop crept up on me. The woman, still engrossed in her study guide, didn’t budge when her bags keeled over as I got up from my seat. I wish I made eye contact with her or was able to tell her good luck, but instead, I got up and didn’t say a thing. As I walked out of the northwest exit on 59th Street, I regretted getting irritated with her nudging arm in the beginning. That was before I knew what she was trying to accomplish. Nevertheless, that moment had come and gone and at least my irritability didn’t jolt her concentration. I didn’t have her name or know anything about her, but in some way our arm contact on the train made me feel connected to her. Although a simple connection, it made me hope that everything worked out for her.