Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Price and promise of citizenship

Today is a historical day. Today is the day Barack Obama is sworn in as our 44th president. Today is the day the first African American president takes the highest level of leadership in a country I have come to call home. Today is the day our new leader inspires us and challenges us to choose hope over fear.

Fourteen years ago, on January 6, 1995 I stood before a judge, along with fellow immigrants, in the federal courthouse of St. Louis, Missouri and took the Oath of Allegiance. That afternoon I renounced my citizenship to my home country of Thailand - a country where I was born and raised; a country where my roots were planted. As each word was spoken and left my mouth, there was pride and there was sadness.

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same..."

I am especially proud to be an American today. My formative years in Bangkok where freedom was not a given, have led me to never taken freedom for granted. Today's inaugural speech and celebration filled me with joy and hope; it also brought back memories for me of a tragic time in Bangkok - the brutal massacre of innocent students in Thailand as they fought for freedom and democracy – October 6, 1976 – a day referred by Thais as Hok Tulaa. I remember hearing gun shots. I remember feeling the ground tremble as tanks patrolled the streets. I remember the deafening silence of Rajdamri road, the busy street on which we lived, as curfew was enforced across the entire city. [Bryce Beemer has written an eloquent piece on it titled Remembering and Forgetting Hok Tulaa - it explores the complex nature of an event so many Thais, myself included, try not to remember.]

Today, I am reminded of the risks and sacrifices made by so many and the lives lost. I am reminded today of my responsibility to take risks and make sacrifices to preserve our freedom.

I hold close to my heart words from Obama’s speech:

“… For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

On paper, I am a citizen of the United State of America. In my heart, I am, and will always be, a citizen of the world. Today, I honor the roots of my homeland country Thailand. Today, fourteen years later, I renew my commitment and allegiance to a country I now call home. And today, I am grateful to live in a country where the distance and height of my flight depends solely on how far and wide I dare to spread my wings.

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