When my mother became a U.S. citizen in 1980, I asked her why her hair wasn't blond.
I was 5 at the time. I don't remember it, but my mom tells me when she walked through the door after her swearing-in ceremony I just stared at her, puzzled.
I thought being American was having blond hair, eating at McDonald's and watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. I thought being American must be the greatest thing in the world.
I wanted to be an American.
Instead, I was a Filipino girl with brown skin, choppy black hair and slanted eyes.
Nobody looked at me and knew that I had been in this country since I was 9 months old. In grade school, children ran circles around me chiming, "ching, chang, chong," as if I were a strange foreigner. When I spoke to them in clear English, they were often startled.
My parents worked hard, paid their taxes and abided by the laws. We held green cards. We had every right to be here.
But when I traveled outside the country or applied for a job, I had to flash my green plastic card. When I turned 18, I couldn't vote like my friends. I spoke English, pledged allegiance to the flag and lived here, but I still wasn't American.
My mom wanted to come here as a young woman to study architecture at a graduate school. But she was the only girl in the family, and moving to another country at that time was unheard of.
When she finally moved here, she says, she decided to take advantage of the priveleges of citizenship. After all, this would be her home.
Had my dad, Tomas, become a citizen as well, my brothers and I would automatically have become naturalized. But he was not ready.
There was martial law in the Philippines, and relinquishing this Filipino citizenship meant giving up his property rights. Besides, he said, he wanted the decision to be our own.
At last, my father, brother Ricky and I applied for citizenship together in December, interviewed in April and took our oaths late June.
My dad says it was the growing anti-immigrant sentiment that finally persuaded him to apply. Ricky wanted to be able to vote and travel easily. I couldn't wait for the day when I wouldn't have to show the plastic green card to prove I belonged.
I kept telling myself I shouldn't be nervous, but I couldn't help it. I feared that though I had lived here my entire life, they would decide that they didn't want me.
And I was also frustrated. I knew that so many Americans did not know the answers to some of the questions I would be asked at my interview. And I didn't think it was fair that I could be persecuted for that.
But I passed the test and survived the interview.
From then on, I eagerly awaited my swearing-in ceremony invitation, circling the mailbox like a vulture. And when I did get the letter, I counted the days, telling everyone the big day was near.
I'm not sure what I expected -- a wave of inspiration to overcome me as I pronounced my oath, to walk out of that convention hall mesmerized.
I would like to say when the 4,000 people waved their plastic flags and the national anthem resounded, I was in awe. I want to say, "Yes, I am proud to be an American."
But I'd be lying if that's all I said.
My 10-year-old cousin in the Philippines wrote me and said she didn't understand why I became a U.S. citizen.
"Aren't you proud to be a Filipina?" she asked.
The truth is, I'm proud to be both. I am still a Filipina, holding dearly the values and traditions with which I was raised.
But I am now an American. I will do what I can to help this country as it has helped me. It is my duty as a citizen.
My naturalization certificate is tucked in a Manila folder in a bookshelf in my dad's office. To me, it is just a piece of paper with my name and picture on it.
It is what the certificate stands for that is very dear to me.
I can say that I am an American. I do belong.
originally printed in The Orange County Register, July 1996