Notes on Citizenship

Nina Li Coomes reckons with the quandary of citizenship and the meaning of home.

Nina Li Coomes | Longreads | April 2019 | 14 minutes (3,609 words)

A month after Donald Trump is inaugurated president, my mother visits me in Boston. I have lived in the city for only a month, and my apartment is furnished, but barely. During the day, while I sit in a windowless office, my mother drags a suitcase down snowy Commonwealth Avenue to TJ Maxx, where she fills the rolling bag with comforting objects: a teal ceramic pitcher; a wire kitchen cart; a swirling, blue-and-white rug. She makes at least three trips down the hill to the store and back again.

When she is not buying knickknacks, she scrubs my buckling apartment floors. She wrings a rag in warm water, palms it over the wood, her posture and form impeccable as usual. Though I’d beg her not to do this, her actions make sense. For the 20 years we have lived in the United States, my mother has made a ritual of scrubbing the floors of all of our homes. In our first American house, in the unwelcoming cornfields of Illinois, I would know that all was well if I came through the front door to see the warm gleam of freshly scrubbed wood. In my parents’ house in Chicago, if I ever walked across the kitchen in my shoes by accident or, more likely, in a careless hurry, guilt would course down my back, the memory of her hunched by the radiator busily scrubbing flooding my mind. After college, when I lived in New York, she visited me there and insisted on getting down on her hands and knees again, though my roommate had a dog who shed constant, ungrateful clouds of black fur, making a clean floor impossible. In each place we have lived, no matter where we are, my mother has labored over the floor to make it home.

* * *

I was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a white American father. After my birth, my parents sent an application the U.S. consulate for my American citizenship. The application included my Japanese birth certificate and an accompanying English translation, proof of their marriage in both languages, as well as proof of my father’s U.S. citizenship. My mother’s status as an ethnically Japanese national qualified me for Japanese citizenship upon birth. I have always been a dual citizen of both the United States and Japan.

As a child, I bragged about this status to my peers. I had two countries I could claim as my own, I would crow, two places to call home. My parents often chided me for this bragging, but my willful girl-self ignored them. Though my status as mixed race was most often confusing and other times painful, this was one place I found pride, a jolt of pleasure pulsing through my hands as I touched the spines of one blue and one red passport, both with my name emblazoned on the inside. At the customs kiosk in airports, I liked the momentary juggle my parents did, swapping out our U.S. passports for Japanese ones in Tokyo, and back again in Chicago. All of the coming and going resulted in my American passport looking like an absurdist travel log, appearing as if I left the country and came back a month later without ever entering another country. Though I was only ever just shuttling between the same two nations to visit one set of grandparents or another, childishly I imagined my dual citizenship as a secret mission, a doorway into which I could walk and disappear, existing in secret for a short while. Other times, my passports felt like a double-headed key, easing the pain of leaving one home with the improbable solution of arriving at a different one. My passports — their primary-colored bindings, their grainy texture and heavy pages, these were magical tokens of my childish belief in my double-belonging.

This was one place I found pride, a jolt of pleasure pulsing through my hands as I touched the spines of one blue and one red passport, both with my name emblazoned on the inside.

Dual citizenship is technically only legal in Japan until the age of 22, at which point an individual is required to make “declaration of citizenship,” effectively asking dual citizens to give up their claim on at least one of their countries of origin. There are, of course, ways around this. There are an estimated 700,000 dual citizens past the age of 22 living in Japan, though this number is probably skewed by the willingness of illegal dual citizens to come forward regarding their legal status. Some dual citizens choose never to declare, trusting in the inefficiencies of a labyrinthine bureaucracy to forget about legal technicalities. Others make their declaration in remote locations far from metropolises like Tokyo or Osaka with the hopes that less-urban officials will not take the time to ask for a renunciation of non-Japanese passports. Some, like me, renewed their passport on the eve of their 22nd birthday, effectively buying another four years to weigh the choice, hoping that laws might shift to allow for legally sustained dual citizenship.

* * *

In Japan, a person obtains citizenship not by birthplace but by blood: This is called jus sanguinis citizenship, or citizenship as defined by the “right of blood.” It does not matter if you are born in the country or out of it. You are only a citizen if you have at least one parent whose blood can be classified as Japanese. (There are some exceptions based on naturalization and statelessness.) Requiring Japanese blood as a tenet of citizenship implies that there is such a thing; that Japaneseness can be traced back to one, biologically determined race. In 2008, conservative lawmakers proposed that DNA testing become part of the process necessary to determine Japanese citizenship, suggesting that biological markers could identify Japanese blood over foreign blood. Though the proposal was ultimately thrown out on grounds of logistical and financial impossibility, it lays bare the use of Japanese citizenship to promote a Japanese ethnostate. Simply put, to Japan, an ideal citizen is someone who is 100 percent racially Japanese.

In the United States, people become citizens through a combination of jus sanguinis, “right of blood,” and jus soli, “right of soil.” If you are born within the boundaries of the United States of America, or born to a parent who is a U.S. citizen, you are granted U.S. citizenship. This idea is introduced in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It is tempting to say that the U.S. is egalitarian, that it is not founded on ethnocentrism, but the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment was written only as a result of the Civil War. It granted citizenship to Black Americans nearly a century after the nation’s founding and in many ways did so in name only.


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Though Asian Americans were granted citizenship in 1898, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 insured that immigrant laborers were not given easily accessible avenues to permanent citizenship. By the same token, Supreme Court cases in the 1920s (Ozawa v. United States and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind) established a further precedent barring Asians from naturalizing as citizens on account of their not being “free white persons.” The “free white persons” clause of naturalization in U.S. law was dissolved in 1952, but strict immigration quotas continued to be official policy until 1965. Before 1924, Native Americans were only considered citizens if they could be taxed, if they served in a war, married a white person, or disavowed their tribal allegiance. By the time the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 passed, most had already followed these alternate paths to citizenship, and even then, states with large Native American populations refused to grant citizenship to their population for fear of the Native American vote. It took almost 25 years for the Indian Citizenship Act to be adopted by all 50 of the United States of America.

No matter the intention of our Founding Fathers or the text of the 14th Amendment, citizenship in the United States is complicated, fraught; at once given and taken away, fickle and traitorous, seemingly color-blind and yet in service to a majority of “free white persons.”

My passports — their primary-colored bindings, their grainy texture and heavy pages, these were magical tokens of my childish belief in my double-belonging.

This duplicity isn’t unique to the United States or Japan. It is the nature of citizenship to uphold humanity while simultaneously denying it. For the Roman philosopher Cicero, one of the first to consider the idea of the citizen, this duality was best explained as a trade-off between citizen and state. In return for completing certain civic responsibilities (say, paying your taxes and following road signs), citizens are offered rights: protection from the state, the ability to claim nationality, and the like. More than a thousand years later, German-born American philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt echoed this same sentiment by famously calling citizenship “the right to have rights.” In her view, citizenship was a necessary vehicle to deliver human rights. Simply being human didn’t give you access to things like life and liberty. One needs a state to fulfill them. Taken backwards, this implies that without a government’s acknowledgement of citizenship, a person can be stripped of the rights inherent to their existence. In other words, if you’re not a citizen, you’re not fully a person.

* * *

At the end of my mother’s Boston visit, her busy homemaking and floor-scrubbing now at an end, I take her to a donut shop for breakfast. Inside, a Cambodian family slips rings of hot fried dough glazed in honey into paper envelopes, handing them to construction workers, police officers, and university students. Behind the counter, on the other side of the kitchen door, no English exists. Instead, Cambodian wafts, punctured by laughter and sighs, tossed by the woman pouring coffee with her hand balled at her hip, the smiling man behind the counter, the surly teenager bussing half-finished plates of buttery scrambled eggs. Above the cash register proud signs hang declaring the store a “Boston Favorite,” a “Chosen Community Partner,” and the recipient of numerous other local awards.

At our sticky table, I find myself unexpectedly moved. Passing by the donut shop on my daily commute, I assumed that the curly pink neon signage, a relic from the ’50s preserved on a triangular storefront, was surely the property of a white family. Instead what I found was a family of South Asian immigrants, making a classic American food and serving it in their own fashion with aplomb. The donut shop seemed unconcerned with assimilation. Months later, I’d take my sister to the same donut shop and she’d say that she was confused. The decor inside made her feel like she should be eating some sort of noodles but instead she was eating a chocolate glazed cake donut.

As a rule, I am skeptical of the American Dream. I’m suspicious of what it sells and at what cost. What does it mean to believe in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when the state reserves the right to take it away at a moment’s notice, to inter you and your family for looking like the enemy? What is freedom if it is a specific, circumscribed kind of freedom? A labored freedom? An unfair freedom? A tilted, volatile, violent freedom?

But at the donut shop, picking apart a vanilla-and-chocolate twist, I see a glimpse of what this country might offer: a promise of evolution, integrity, and acceptance. Perhaps this is what belonging in this country might mean, at its best: that something as classically American as a 1950s corner donut store could be taken over by a family of refugees from South Asia without pomp or angst. That the store and the family that run it can exist without concerning themselves with assimilating to a white American standard, but instead remain rooted in their own traditions and languages. Sitting in the corner table with my mother, I feel as if happiness, freedom, equality, these are hard to come by and elusive. But change, the potential for newness and its embrace, these might yet flourish. These prospects feel solid, somehow, steady and unconditional, vivacious in comparison to the pale two-faced promise of a passport. A hint that perhaps making a home for oneself actually has nothing to do with the cold detachment of a customs official, and more to do with the warmth of feeding your kin on a cold morning.

* * *

Here is how I once passed through customs in Tokyo:

After 14 hours of sitting in an economy class seat, the overhead bin bumping precariously along to turbulence, sleep evasive and slippery, I am greasy and dry-eyed. Everything feels dreamlike. Time moves in stilted seconds, late afternoon sunlight pouring in through pristine panels of glass when my mind is clamoring that it ought to be night. Passengers are herded like badly behaved cattle along moving walkways, the robotic woman’s voice telling us to please watch our step. The path curves, and soon the windows are replaced by gray walls and fluorescent lights. I continue to trudge forward, dragging my stubbornly lagging suitcase. On the walls are signs advertising caution about various strains of influenza.

Sitting in the corner table with my mother, I feel as if happiness, freedom, equality, these are hard to come by and elusive. But change, the potential for newness and its embrace, these might yet flourish.

At customs, placards hang from the ceiling, directing the flight crew to the right, followed by foreigners and tourists, with Japanese nationals and permanent residents filing to the far left. I take my place in the line to the left, feeling at once indignant and like an imposter. An anxious, scrambling feeling chases its tail under my collarbone. As I approach the sunken booth, I try to sound as local as it can get, hoping that the country bumpkin slur of my words will score me a point in the invisible tally of Japaneseness I imagine each customs official keeping. I answer questions about where I am staying, why I am here. Images of the kerosene stove in my grandmother’s front room, my grandfather’s furled fists, their unruly garden — these blossom in my mind, a talisman of home to hold tightly under my breath. Believe me, I pray, believe that I belong here. Inside my backpack, I can feel my other passport, my other citizenship, pulsating like a treacherous living thing.

* * *

It is not lost on me that the language of citizenship traffics in metaphors of life and death, but delivers on promise and rumors. We are given weighty, destiny-scaled ultimatums, discussions of blood and soil evoking images of birth and death, sustenance and longevity. Identification implies belonging, our membership to a country playing on notions of larger, state-bound families. The nation is our mother. The nation is our father. In giving us the gift of citizenship, it has labored to give us life and will lay us weeping in the ground.

But in delivery, citizenship becomes elusive and hard to pin down. It is promised to us with outstretched arms, then snatched away with ease. We are assured home and kinship; we arrive to find an empty house. We are drawn to the visage of a guardian — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — but we are greeted by a ghost.

* * *

 

After finishing our breakfast at the donut shop, my mother and I take a cab to Logan Airport so she can catch her flight home to Chicago. When we arrive, I help her check in and walk her to the TSA cordoned security area. She waves me away at the mouth of the line, the oblong maze of tangled tape empty at this apparently unpopular time to fly. “Go,” she says. I shake my head, watching her hoist her navy canvas bag over one shoulder, taking mincing steps through the open line in front of her. This shooing-and-staying, like the floor-washing, is another one of our family’s traditions. Whenever one of us leaves their home, whether it is in Japan or the U.S., whomever they are leaving staunchly refuses to leave the side of the security line until they can no longer see them. This staying put is an act of loyalty, of love, of claiming each other as our own. We are stating that no border crossing, no officialdom, no distance or space can slice its way through our bonds.

That day I watch my mother’s small body turn even smaller in the distance, and I feel a familiar animal anxiety dig its claws into my chest. Earlier that week, crowds of people poured into U.S. airports, protesting Donald Trump’s travel ban. Scenes of lobbies filled with protesters flooded televisions, mouths moving in angry unison on muted screens. Reports of families separated at customs, of loved ones canceling plans to visit their relatives in the U.S., patients unable to access American hospitals — these are the stories that dominated the news cycle.

Suddenly, as if someone had passed a transparency over my eyes, I see the TSA agent taking a closer look at my mother’s green card. I imagine his voice, meaty and rough when raised. I imagine my mother’s English, flattening as frustration crept into her voice. I imagine what I might do if someone emerged from the wings of the security booth to grab her by the arm, roughly escorting her to a private room. I imagine if I would shout, run, or stay rooted to the spot. At least she would be OK in Japan, a small voice, at once guilty and relieved, says inside me.

My mother passes through the security checkpoint without incident. She waves from behind the metal detector, her hand cleaving a wide, swinging arc in the air. 

* * *

Citizenship comes into sharp relief at the most important junctures of life. Two years after my mother’s visit to Boston, my now-husband and I go to the Cook County Clerk’s office, in Chicago, to obtain our marriage license. We are presented with a list of appropriate documents to prove our citizenship — driver’s licenses, passports, birth certificates. Above us, a looming sign proclaims: COOK COUNTY CLERK | BIRTH MARRIAGE DEATH. Birth, marriage, death: To be acknowledged, all these require proof of belonging to a nation. Plunking down my own driver’s license, I wonder what one does without the proper identification. A man ahead of us in line is turned away for not having the correct paperwork to claim his infant daughter’s birth certificate. Without the necessary government-issued credentials, no matter how strange it seemed, he could not receive proof that his daughter now existed outside the womb. Without citizenship, could you be born? Without it, could you die?

This staying put is an act of loyalty, of love, of claiming each other as our own. We are stating that no border crossing, no officialdom, no distance or space can slice its way through our bonds.

My wondering is of course borne of a certain kind of privilege. Undocumented and stateless people know exactly what it is like to live without citizenship. People dear to me have struggled for acknowledgement in the eyes of a mercurial state, granting and revoking rights with the turn of an administration. In many ways I am lucky to be presented with the conundrum of citizenship after 22 years of dual citizenship. I have had not one but two homes.

* * *

On my most recent trip home to Japan, this time to celebrate my new marriage with my family, I exited the plane groggy and barely awake. I followed the familiar corridor, the paneled light flickering, the woman’s voice telling us to mind the gap. Passengers plodded on, all of us filing forward to customs, noting the warnings for newer, more varied strains of flu. This time, I did not take the far left lane. Instead, I entered the country for the first time on a U.S. passport, my lapsed Japanese one tucked in my backpack, safely away from questions of allegiance, loyalty, and citizenship. A small part of me was relieved to filter through the droning line of tourists, no need to prove my worthiness of entry to a stony-faced official. A larger part of me wallowed in a shallow sadness, as if a pale premonition of grief, suspecting that this might be the first step toward exile.

Why do you speak Japanese so well? the man at customs barked, suspicious. Because my mother is Japanese, I answered, the image of her running a rag over my Boston floors, the homes she has created the world over for us, blurring my vision. Is this your only passport? he jabbed a finger at my solitary blue book. Yes, I smiled, three red booklets pulsing against my back.

* * *

Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer from Nagoya and Chicago. Her work can be found in The Atlantic, EATER, Catapult and elsewhere.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross