Did I Make a Mistake Becoming an American?

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As the clock ticks down on Donald Trump's final hours as president, the world bemoans the condition he leaves the U.S. From Seattle to Sydney, there is disgust at the deadly assault he inspired on the Capitol. The opprobrium rang out with one clear plaint: America had lost the plot, and it couldn’t be put back together again. As an American abroad, my question was personal: Did I make a colossal error five years ago?

In early 2016, I stood with about 80 other people in a Brooklyn courtroom and became a U.S. citizen. It wasn’t because I was a newly converted patriot with a need to place hand on heart and recite the oath of allegiance. Mine was a purely voluntary commitment. As an Australian, I wasn't fleeing political or religious persecution. I had freedom of speech, and a comfortable life as a permanent resident of the U.S. I had clocked more than two decades as a reporter, editor and executive at a major U.S. news organization. 
I did it partly for convenience. My wife and children are American. I had resided in the U.S. for many years with no plan to return to the land of my birth — a place I hadn’t lived in since the mid-1990s. It seemed a nuisance not to go the whole hog and get myself a say in how I was governed, as opposed to merely writing about it.

Still, there was a deeper motivation. The U.S. has been the political and economic lodestone of the planet throughout my lifetime, and long before that. The country was always a source of fascination for me — the main game in culture, philosophy, technology. With its huge strategic and geopolitical footprint, America was of acute interest to many people around me when I was growing up. And when I finally came to the country, I reveled in its physical majesty. Arriving at the Grand Canyon at dusk during a road trip, all I could say to my future wife was “‘National Geographic’s got nothing on this!” As a citizen, I could be part of great human and natural history.   

Despite my abhorrence of Trump and the terrorists he whipped into desecrating the halls of Congress, I find myself defending the U.S. both as a place, and as an idea. In public, I agreed with the finger-wagging — who couldn’t? Still, in private, the jeering from all corners of the globe made my eyes roll. I was annoyed by the schadenfreude and irritated by the lecturing when it  emanated from places that constrain the ability to protest at all. Sure, let off some steam and bash the U.S. because you like to do what’s trending on Twitter. Or because your own leaders let you diss other societies but keep a tight leash on what you can say at home about how you are governed. It really got to me. I was proud to be an American — even if it’s difficult to say why — and unhappy to see it mauled by local thugs or scoffed at by self-satisfied foreigners. 

There was no magic in the citizenship rite that day in 2016. Anyone anticipating the kind of soul-stirring of Aaron Sorkin’s television drama The West Wing would have been disappointed by the procedures. We were instructed to surrender our green cards before entering the room and then waited hours for the judge who would swear us in. When she finally arrived, she told us about the murals on the walls depicting immigrants laboring to build bridges, grow stuff and dig resources out of the ground. We then got a lecture on how awesome America was and how the judge’s parents left Taiwan when she was a child to give her opportunities she wouldn’t have had at home. But wait, I thought, hadn’t Taiwan just elected its first female president, something the U.S. still hasn’t done? I was about to say something, then thought better of it. I had things to do. Places to be. A man in the front row hollered “Thank you, America!” 

We’re used to seeing stories about the record numbers of Americans renouncing their citizenship. This probably has more to do with taxes and financial reporting requirements, than it does Trump. America is one of the few places that hounds its citizens for income tax even if you don’t earn it in the U.S; Eritrea is another. During tax season, there is no glamor in holding a couple of passports and working abroad, in my case Singapore. It’s painful.

But there is more to America than taxes. As stressful as the Trump era has been and much as it gave rise to doubts about my American journey, I shall not give up so easily. I have skin in the game. And I’m sure America’s story isn’t finished.  The other day I came upon the letter from President Barack Obama that I — and all my fellow new Americans — received along with my certificate of naturalization. The final two sentences resonate: “You are now part of this precious history, and you serve as an inspiration to those who will come after you. We embrace you as a new citizen of our land, and we welcome you to the American family.” 

I won’t be handing back my papers any time soon. The country is worth another chance, and probably one after that. It doesn’t mean I don’t worry about it and question how safe it is there. Or how the fissures Trump made worse can be bridged — if they can be. To voice skepticism is my constitutional right, after all. 

I have now spent almost as much time outside the U.S. as a citizen than within its borders. I shall still, nevertheless, set my alarm for shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday, Singapore time, to watch Joe Biden become the 46th president.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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