Losing and Gaining Citizenships

I became an American citizen more than fourteen years ago. Ironically, my decision to do so was prompted by my leaving the US–for what was supposed to be a two-year stint as a post-doctoral fellow in Australia. I was then a permanent resident of the US, equipped with the famed ‘green card.’ Subject to certain restrictions, I could travel in and out of the US but not wanting to deal with the INS hassling me during my extended stay overseas, I decided to apply for naturalization.

In taking on American citizenship, I lost my Indian one. From then on, I would need a visa to travel to India. My feelings about this state of affairs, as can be imagined, were mixed. (As a post from last year indicates, I’ve paid a certain price for this decision.) On one hand, I had not lived in India for over thirteen years and seemed unlikely to return to take up residence any time soon, if ever. My academic career often required me to travel–for conferences, for instance–and possessing a passport that meant fewer trips to consular offices was always going to be a blessing. More to the point, I had spent those same thirteen years in the US and was enmeshed in its life and politics (and tax regimes). On the other, losing my Indian citizenship felt like a significant distancing from a shared past and culture and history, from family and home. I don’t know if I ever thought of it as a betrayal of any kind–though some unkind friends of mine did urge this interpretation on me. I did however feel I had self-consciously turned my back on an older me.

But at the time, I don’t think I gave the loss much thought at all. I had been thirteen years gone from India; notions of ‘home’ had grown more confused in my mind. I did not find myself in the grip of an existential question of any sort, but rather, considered myself to be dealing with a far more mundane concern: which travel document would work better for me? Because I had become stranded in a voluntary exile of sorts, because my identity had become a more confused entity, questions of citizenship did not feel as infected with nationalist or nativist urgency as they might have.

As I was sworn in on that cold December morning in 2000, I realized it was the first time I had deliberately chosen the citizenship of a nation. My Indian one had come to me by birth; my passport had been mine to ask for; a set of allegiances lay waiting for me to take on. Here, I had inserted myself into the process of gaining a nationality; previously, I had been born into the role. My older passport had been the culmination of a long series of experiences that had reinforced my nationality; my newer one was the first indication of my newer one, the first contributor to the building of a new edifice of identity.