By Victoria Lee, Medill, Immigrant Connect

It all began with a test.

Ariel Pao never even considered moving to the United States until she received her university exam results. The results are a crucial turning point for most Taiwanese young adults. In fact, Taiwanese students face even higher stakes than American students because they don’t have the final say in the university they can attend. Instead, students are ranked by their scores and matched to university programs based on availability and the students’ interest in the program.

Like many other students, Pao wasn’t satisfied with her placement. She received a slot for an English program at a private Taiwanese university, and private universities are usually more expensive and less respected than public universities.

“Most people will not get their first choice unless they are in the top 99th percentile, who are then guaranteed they will be going to the top programs,” Pao said.

Ariel Pao, a Taiwanese immigrant, with other Taiwanese faculty and students on Sam Houston State University’s campus. Pao’s aunts Li-Jen Lester (far right) and Li-Fang Yu suggested Pao study in the US. Pao first studied at a community college and transferred to Sam Houston State to get her bachelor’s degree.

When Pao’s aunts, Li-Fang Yu and Li-Jen Lester, heard the news, they suggested their niece study in America. After all, Pao wouldn’t have to study English, since she would be surrounded by it. Moreover, Lester had studied abroad in America, and eventually became a professor in Texas, so she was quite familiar with life in the United States. As a result, in 2003, and without much thought, Pao agreed to join Lester in Texas, and enrolled in community college.

About 16 years later, on May 9, 2019, Pao was one of the 111 immigrants from over 35 countries who swore in a ceremony in Chicago to “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty,” and “bear true faith and allegiance to the [United States].”

Despite the wording of the Oath of Allegiance, some immigrants to the U.S. are able to hold dual citizenship with their home countries. In this case, they are considered nationals of both countries, must obey the laws of both countries, and owe their allegiance to both countries.

The option of dual citizenship played a role in Pao’s decision to become a citizen, she said. If such an option were not available to her, she would have had second thoughts about being naturalized.

Pao at her naturalization ceremony.

In fact, Pao didn’t picture a permanent future in the United States for a long time. She’d planned on moving back to Taiwan after paying off her student loans. And then she met an American, born and raised in Chicago, and finally felt she had a person who could make her feel at home. They married.

Pao’s marriage allowed her to switch from an H1B visa to a green card that established her as a permanent resident. After having her green card for three years, Pao could become a U.S. citizen — which she did. Coming from Taiwan, a place with a strong democratic culture, Pao said it was personally crucial for her to have the right to vote and participate in civil society. However, this was only one component of Pao’s decision to become naturalized.

Pao and her husband in a park the day they married, June 20, 2015.

“I had legal papers, but I was concerned about the current administration since it is very anti-immigrant,” Pao said. “I had seen the news about green card holders getting deported, just for something stupid. So then I said, I’m going to get [U.S. citizenship] as soon as possible, because I don’t want to get kicked out for something stupid.”

Pao’s uneasiness was exacerbated when she didn’t receive the permanent green card she was entitled to. She had already waited a year and a half for it to come. Thus, she decided to go for the ultimate protection against nerve-wracking immigration policies, and became an American citizen. Interestingly, she said that the office that approved her naturalization responded much faster than the office that dealt with green cards.

While Pao’s decision to become a U.S. citizen stemmed from a rude awakening towards hostile immigration policies, some other East Asian immigrants decide to become citizens in order to strengthen their family ties.

Alan Louie, an ESL teacher at the Pui Tak Center in Chicago’s Chinatown, said that most of his students want to become American citizens so that they can sponsor their family member’s green cards and bring them to the United States.

Chinatown, Chicago, where the Pui Tak Center is located. (Source: Wikipedia)

Interestingly, the Chinese government does not recognize dual citizenship, and is one of few countries that enforces the single citizenship law quite seriously.

Nonetheless, many Chinese immigrants still become U.S. citizens. In 2016, 51% of Chinese immigrants in the United States were also U.S. citizens. Louie’s experience has shown him that the single citizenship requirement doesn’t really hinder a Chinese immigrant’s decision to become naturalized.

“If [the people that I teach] are here, that means they really wanted to be in the U.S., and they would be willing to give up their Chinese citizenship,” Louie said. “But I wonder if they did not have to… it would have been better for them to keep both. But since they had to make a choice, they gave up their Chinese citizenship.”

Dan Xiao, a well-educated Chinese immigrant, seems to agree with this sentiment. Xiao came to the United States in 1989, after he was accepted to Columbia University’s doctoral program. Once he stayed in the U.S. for the required five years, he applied immediately for naturalization.

Xiao said he received an education that allowed him to develop an interest in iconic Western thought. When he was a student in China, he loved to peruse books from the Greek era to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, naturally fostering his proclivity towards a Western education. Essentially, it was this insight into another part of the world that allowed Xiao to transcend the idea of China as the place where he belonged.

“I think China is still largely a civilization that’s agriculturally oriented, and people are attached to the land very tightly, and think that the land where they are born in is their motherland,” Xiao said. “But I think that expression is not as relevant once you get educated. It’s okay to have an attachment to where you are born because that’s where your family is, but in that country, the political system and way of living may not be what you want — and that’s exactly my case.”

On the topic of dual citizenship, Xiao commented that his instinctive disposition towards Western ideology really gave him a “very natural preference for being a U.S. citizen.” He also noted that having the American passport was much more convenient than having a Chinese passport. Students of Louie’s mentioned it too.

Xiao said his decision to relinquish his Chinese citizenship hasn’t impacted him in any significant way. He owns no real estate in China and his children grew up in the United States. He understands why the Chinese government forbids dual citizenship. However, Xiao believes the single citizenship rule is a “short sighted policy,” especially since China actively enforces it. When Xiao first visited China as an American citizen, Chinese agents demanded Xiao give up his Chinese passport at the airport and cut it up in front of him.

Having a foreign passport is inconvenient in China, Xiao said. Chinese citizens have a government issued I.D., much like an American driver’s license, and with it they can board flights and trains or check into hotels much more easily than a foreigner can. To remedy this burden, Xiao believes some equivalent of a green card to stay in China should be made available, in order to give people an easier chance to have a career there.

Despite Pao’s and Xiao’s contrasting reasons for naturalization and their widely opposing views of how they fit into American society, both acknowledged that they are now more American than they are Taiwanese or Chinese. Pao said that during her time in the United States, she experienced continuous self improvement and became more confident about who she is. Xiao said he’s demonstrated his own Americanization by becoming a Christian and immersing himself in American politics.