On Becoming an American. Thoughts on democracy and citizenship

Have you ever heard of the term Australian-American? I haven’t. But I’m about to use it a lot.

I was born and raised in the most remote town in the very heart of Australia, a place called Alice Springs, yes the one from the book and a couple of movies. 1,000 miles from the nearest city or the ocean. I grew up hunting kangaroos, trying to catch snakes, digging up grubs form tree roots to eat and working on a cattle ranch and slaughterhouse (grass fed baby, no other way in the bush). I don’t like wearing shoes still. I did live in a town and go to a normal school too, I’m not that wild. We did have a K-Mart and couple of high schools.

It’s been over twenty years since I left the bush. Almost seven years since I migrated to the USA and got married (yes I’m a mail-order husband). I’m know blessed to live in one of the most amazing parts of the world- the San Francisco Bay Area, the East Bay in particular.  I’m humbly proud to be an Aussie, we don’t do patriotism much, but I do love my homeland and miss it often. But this week I’m taking the US Citizenship exam to become an American, make that an Australian-American. I struggled with that term for some time, it sounded cheesy and stupid at first, but I thought of my Chinese and African-American compadres and what that term means for them. For me it’s similar- I am becoming a US Citizen and will be an American, as mixed as that is globally, but I’m always going to be an Australian- that doesn’t change. So I’m going to soon be an Australian-American.

Why would I want to do this? Why does it matter anyway?

I think it’s really important that we participate in the communities we live in. Passive residency never builds countries, nor change, nor vibrant communities. I think this operates both nationally as well as locally.  It’s easy to live the white flight dream of a suburban house with a nice school and two cars and to focus on career and family, but it’s also a passive existence.  I see a functioning democracy as a powerful, valuable thing that needs to be nurtured, like a garden or like a relationship. If we check out and live our lives focused inwardly we will build a nation of selfish, self interested individuals. That’s not something I want a part of.

I come from a country where voting is compulsory. 100% turnout. From that background, living in a country and not being able to vote is like being castrated civically. Even living in a state that may not represent any option for a shift in federal voting patterns I still feel dis-empowered by not being able to vote on issues I know about and care about. It feels like fraud to speak up on so many issues and not be able to vote on them. So the right to vote is definitely a big reason for me becoming a US Citizen. I’m much less excited about Jury Duty however.

I’ve had a great privilege to be part of local and national efforts to help make government more open, more accessible and more technologically agile. Again, coming from another country endows one with great perspective on the relative strengths and weaknesses of “how we do things”, and often on how things could be done a lot better.  Part of this work is connected with government officials, elected leaders and civic groups. I’m inspired by the passionate activism I see around me, the sacrificial leadership and support in service of low income and working communities of color and the fight for equality and freedom for all in the USA. I’ve had moments of disgust at the actions carried out by the State in this country that have made me seriously question my decision to become an American.  But like local struggles and issues, I don’t believe one can have an impact from the sidelines as a passive observer, one needs to be part of the community you are seeking to change.

I’m excited to be part of the changing discourse on politics and government service in this great country.  And part of my commitment to honoring public service, civil discourse and debate and activism is to become one with the others in this country.  I grew up with a strong sense of the importance of critical thinking and debate. Sometimes my wonderful wife things this is too strong… I’m often frustrated at the quality of discourse and media coverage on government in the USA, but I do believe that it does not have to be this way, but to bring about that change those of us with ideas and vision need to be active and involved. Government will not become more open, transparent, engaged and agile without our support and not until we break down this fallacy of government as THEM (the others) and the public as US (the people). Every member of the civil service is a resident and member of the public- they all live in communities and suffer or succeed with the rest of us. Likewise we the people are a self governed country, we make up our government and we have a role to play in our governance and in the changing direction of our country.

This change, the journey into an unknown but exciting future as a country is something I’m happy to sign up for.  I’m throwing my hat into the ring with the rest of you 305 million Americans. I think we can all do better. I think we all want more from our government and I have some ideas on how to make that happen. But I can’t do that from the sidelines.

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