AFTER ALMOST three decades on these shores, after earning a college degree and starting a family, it was time.
For Francina Girard-Williams, my wife of 10 years, a proud native of the Caribbean island of Barbados, it was time to become an American.
After years of angst, indecision and rumination about what it means to be both American and Bajan - the term used for people from Barbados - this week Francina took, and passed, her naturalization test.
Now she's just a pledge away from becoming a naturalized citizen.
And although our family is happy about that, compromises had to be made.
For my wife, it meant diminishing somewhat her Caribbean nationality in the hope that becoming an American would give us more in common and bring more stability to our family.
For me it meant, at the very least, dispatching what I have known about Francina the person, and having the flexibility to understand that change was afoot.
It wasn't easy.
"The reality is, I'm no longer a Bajan citizen," my wife said, clutching her test results while leaving the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, at 16th and Callowhill streets, on Wednesday. "My birth certificate says I'm a citizen of Barbados, but I am no longer. It's a strange feeling, but a good strange, because I've been [in America] so long. It makes me official.
"I do have mixed emotions," Francina continued. "I'm happy, but I had to give up what I have known as my identity for so long."
That was the biggest hurdle for my wife - and, by extension, for her mother, our two small children and myself.
My wife said that thinking about our 7-year-old son, Jahfari, and our 3-year-old daughter, Selah, helped her make her decision.
"They were born American, not Caribbean, so it makes me closer to them now, by nationality," she said.
My wife has defended her birthplace and culture since leaving Barbados for Brooklyn in 1979. In that time, her pride in being a Bajan has only risen, thanks to the unique Caribbean-immigrant population in Brooklyn, where her mother still lives, and its communal vibe.
We met online, when she was a sophomore at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa - from which she earned a bachelor's degree in studio art - and I was a junior at Temple.
We grew close after conversing online for a few semesters, and then Francina landed an internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The internship didn't pan out, partly due to a SEPTA strike, but we did manage to see more of each other. We were married on Nov. 30, 1998, by Senior Judge L.M. Goldblatt of the Third Judicial District in Sioux City. She was 22; I was 24.
If moving from Barbados to the U.S. was a culture shock, nothing can quite compare with being from Barbados and completing her secondary education in America's heartland, surrounded by folks with whom she had absolutely nothing in common.
I had consistently argued that my wife should embrace her Caribbean nationality, maintaining that she had done well enough getting through college and raising our children to not have to become an American citizen. I wasn't being unpatriotic; I thought it would strip away a little bit of her makeup as a person.
Would her becoming an American lessen her sense of being a Bajan?
My wife often wistfully speaks about the communal gatherings stories of "back home." It is both easy and painful to see that she misses her home island very much.
And, selfishly, I didn't want anything to take away from one of the things that had attracted me to her in the first place: Would her becoming an American change how I looked at her?
I've never had such conundrums. My mother's side of the family is American. Not enough is known about my father to say with certainty where he was from. I have heard that he was possibly Jamaican; others only knew him as far as the Tasker Homes housing project in South Philly, where I lived until I was 4 years old.
I grew up in perhaps the poorest section of West Philly, a section we referred to with both disdain and pride as "The Bottom," raised by a single mother who had her hands full with two older siblings and myself, and this upbringing muted my patriotism.
The opportunities America afforded to the many seemed dishearteningly out of reach for me, for my brother, Sean, who is older, and my sister, Gail, the oldest of us. My mother was too busy keeping us warm, in school and well-fed to bother with the nuances of American patriotism.
In fact, being an American didn't register on my consciousness until college, where I formed beliefs on what America seemed to stand for, judging a country's greatness on how it treats its poor and chanceless.
My wife, by contrast, always thought Caribbean first.
"In a way, I do feel less Caribbean - but I've always felt less Caribbean, because I always lived in America," she told me the other night, while we were getting the kids ready for bed. "I always identified myself as Caribbean-American because I was born there."
Mother-in-law in Brooklyn
Undeniably, being an American citizen carries certain perks and presents many otherwise-unattainable opportunities.
At least that's what my mother-in-law in Brooklyn thinks.
"When you have your citizenship, you are free to get everything America has to offer; a city job, different things," said Virginia Girard, in her still-strong Caribbean accent.
She is a native of St. Lucia who moved to Barbados, where she met my wife's father, Francis, and had Francina before migrating to Brooklyn. "Without your citizenship, you cannot get these things, all the quality jobs and benefits. I think it's very good for her to have it."
My mother-in-law would know. Only five years ago, Virginia took and passed her naturalization exam on Long Island, despite a broken-down car.
When my mother-in-law filed, Francina was too old to be put on the docket, Virginia said. "She had to file separately. If she were 18, I could have filed for her when I did my citizenship."
A proud St. Lucian, Virginia relayed what it took for her just to make it to the exam - getting over the nerves, the possibility of failing, everything. Five questions stood between Virginia and becoming an American. Ironically, five other questions stood between Francina and realizing the American dream.
"It gives you a different feeling, like a fulfillment," Virginia said last week. "When you get it, you feel that everything is complete. We now have all the benefits, and it's a good thing."
For Virginia, the first good thing after becoming a citizen had been the lifting of several travel restrictions.
"I felt much better, because I didn't have to use my green card anymore, and I could travel all over the world with a passport," Virginia told me. "Francina needs to get her American passport as the next thing."
Knowing the answers
They asked my wife five questions out of a possible 100 that she had studied for months through memorization and flash cards. They're not easy questions, and they're not multiple-choice either. INS officials also wanted her to read and write a few sentences.
She was confident, because she knew just about every question. I was confident for her, because I had helped her study. But when INS officials called her name, I have to admit, I was nervous: What if she failed? Would she try again? Would she be crushed? What would be the best way to support her, after such a letdown?
Luckily, Francina answered every question correctly, including:
Who is the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?
(Answer: John G. Roberts Jr.)
What type of political system exists in the United States?
(Answer: A republic.)
My wife is pragmatic about becoming an American. After 9/11, immigrants need their naturalization more than ever, she said.
"It's not like you have much choice anyway. As long as you're an immigrant, you have to adjust and become a citizen if you want to stay," she said, after Selah had finally gone to sleep. "It's worth it because I live here. You have to compromise and give up your identity to live here.