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Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010
When a natural selection can appear to some an offensive choice
One morning in the summer of 1967 I made what was, for me, a momentous decision.
I had been sitting in an armchair the entire, tortuous night and doubt that I had a wink of sleep, though I may have dozed off from time to time. At about 6 a.m., I looked around my apartment room. The light was still on. I took a deep breath and pounded the arm of the chair with my fist, saying out loud, "That's it. I'm doing it."
The decision I made that morning was to leave the United States, where I was born and raised, for good.
At that time I wasn't contemplating trading in my American passport for one of another nation. But I did know that, in my heart, at least, I had ceased to feel American.
Although few Americans leave their country permanently — and later, as I did, choose to give up their citizenship — why should such a thing be viewed in any way odd, which is how it has been by most Americans I've mentioned it to?
Millions of citizens of Norway, Kenya, Uruguay, Canada, Sri Lanka and every other country on the planet have adopted the life of the expatriate and chosen to forfeit citizenship of their country of birth. For them it's a natural selection.
In recent years, dual, and even multiple, citizenship has become the norm. Some people have three or four passports. If you get them through the Israeli government, you can even have more — possibly including some that are not in your own name.
While there are countries that do not recognize dual citizenship, many do. When I became an Australian citizen in July 1976, I automatically forfeited my U.S. citizenship, though now it would be possible to retain it. As it was my intention to give up American citizenship, I felt no sense of loss, not even when, some weeks later, I received an "Official Loss of Citizenship Certificate" from the U.S. Consulate in Sydney. I have since lost my loss of citizenship certificate; but, seeing as there is no double negative in the English language, I can assume that this double loss does not imply reinstatement.
Why do people give up the imprimatur of birthright that is citizenship? What do they gain by doing so?
There are myriad motivations spanning everything from a personal desire to escape a particular family or milieu to a strong dislike of social mores, religious dogmas or political institutions in the country of one's birth.
Some people simply fall in love with a new country and identify strongly with it. The immigrant who becomes more native than the native is a common phenomenon. Such people want nothing more than to forget their past lives and assimilate totally. Many of them change their names. They don't want their children to speak their language. Going back to "the old country," even for a visit, is the farthest thing from their mind.
My great-aunt Sylvia, who was born in Antwerp, Belgium, was like that. Luckily, as a Jew, she migrated to the United States before the tsunami of the Nazi pogrom inundated her native country. When, in 1964, I excitedly told her that I was about to take my first trip to Europe, she shook her head and said, "Europe? What you want to go there for? I was born there."
I ended up, in the mid '80s, writing a book I titled "The Unmaking of an American" about my most momentous decision. (It was published only in Japanese, as "Amerikajin o Yameta Watashi.") Ultimately, as I stated there, the elements of such a decision for anyone apply only to themselves. Some Americans I have met over the years have taken offense at this choice. But my choice was personal, and was in no way meant to apply to anyone but myself.
Every person in this world should be free to change their citizenship — or religion, or gender — as they see fit, without encountering an iota of prejudice or disdain from those who choose to stay where and how they are.
I wanted to live in a country without the specious "freedom" of gun ownership. An estimated 200 million guns in private American hands is 200 million too many for me. If the citizens of the United States choose to tote weapons into their schools, parks, restaurants and political rallies, no one's going to stop them. If another country went on a public campaign to rid the U.S. of its guns — in much the manner that the U.S. preaches to other countries about improving their human rights — I suspect that Americans would be up in arms. It doesn't occur to them that something in their Constitution could be hideously outdated, grossly misinterpreted or just plain wrong.
I wanted to live in a welfare state, one that considered it the right of every citizen to have affordable access to every variety of medical care. I wanted to be the citizen of a country that viewed capital punishment as murder. (The last state-sanctioned execution in Australia took place in 1967.) I wanted to live in a country that kept fanatic religious precepts and rhetoric as far away from the body politic as possible.
The U.S. is a de facto theocracy, despite the principle of the separation of church and state. When American politicians hear the word "morality," they reach for their Bibles. (This is why Tony Blair was so popular in the U.S.; the special relationship in his case was not only strategic and political but also faith driven.)
I had an all-American upbringing, and as a kid dreamt of being a senator from California. But as I grew up, I became disillusioned with my country. Again, while the specific nature of the disillusionment may have been personal, I don't think I am any different in this regard from millions of people who have voluntarily abandoned the country of their birth for another.
In my case, I paid a high price in terms of the relationship with my parents. Their parents were born in Europe and migrated to the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century. Living in America was the fulfillment of their every dream, as it was to my mother and father. How could a son (and grandson) of this family choose to leave the confines of a dream?
The U.S. provided everything that my grandparents and parents needed — socially, financially and emotionally. But a country is not a parent; and its laws and customs do not embody an individual's DNA. Leaving America for good was a natural choice that I have never regretted, not once. My armchair decision made back in 1967, if anything, freed me . . . allowed me to extricate myself from the confines of a bad dream and find the freedoms of a better one.