We were to board at 11 a.m. Tokyo time, just my parents and me, a three-year-old child. After 13 hours in the air, we were to arrive at our new home in New York City, 11 a.m. EST. We landed 11 hours later in Toronto. The pilot's voice came over the intercom. He mentioned something of a "simultaneous terrorist attack," as my parents recall.
We remained in Canada for weeks until air traffic resumed. Even after arriving in New York, our family still could not move into our downtown Manhattan apartment because the police had restricted entry to the area. I spent my first few months out of Japan living in hotels, where I played Donkey Kong 64 as my parents anxiously watched the news out of earshot.
But as terrible as 9/11 was, it was also the first time I came into contact with Americans from across the country. On Christmas, my school—located just five blocks away from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center—received gifts from hundreds of people living in Texas, Tennessee, Idaho, Oregon, and scores of other states. Each gift had an encouraging message attached: "We are with you!" "Mom said you might be hurting. We hope this helps." "Sending my love. Praying for you."
As I stood up on Wednesday to take the Oath of Allegiance in a small room in the New York City federal building, I spotted a small placard that said "9/11 Never Forget" in the corner. My mind wandered to those happy Christmas days. As I pledged my service to my new adopted homeland—flanked by a deaf black man and a short Asian girl—a decades-old question returned to the front of my mind. What prompted those anonymous donors to give hundreds of expensive toys to us, not just in 2001 but for years afterward?
While I was only a child back then, the outpouring of unconditional love and compassion from complete strangers still puzzled me. I understood if people sent us gifts in 2001, when the memories of the terrible event were still fresh in everyone's minds. But they kept on sending us presents, year after year, long after 9/11 moved on from the daily news cycle. Every single year, our school would receive presents from those anonymous Americans. Every single year, I picked out the year's trending Hot Wheels set.
Every single year, those Americans had a choice. They could spend their Christmas bonus on themselves or their family. But instead, they chose to spend that money on the children of complete strangers. What inspired them to this act of unconditional kindness?
As I repeated the Oath of Allegiance in that brightly lit room, I felt that I finally had a satisfying answer to the question. The anonymous gifters sent me presents because they are Americans.
For the vast majority of the people in the world, they are born into their citizenship. It is an automatic bureaucratic process, stemming from a coincidence of birthplace. But for Americans, specifically immigrant Americans, citizenship is a choice. You must freely choose—"without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion"—to make an Oath of Allegiance to the United States during your naturalization ceremony. No one is forcing you to be an American, after all.
While the voluntary oath explicitly lays out only war-time responsibilities—"support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies"—I believe the pledge implies something more. By pledging to give your life in combat to protect fellow Americans if necessary, newly minted citizens also make an implicit promise to do what they can to improve the lives of their fellow countrymen in more general terms. (I'm not a lawyer, though, so don't take this as legal advice!)
And every day, Americans strive to fulfill that pledge of service, through gestures big and small. Anonymous Idahoans did so when they sent gifts to my kindergarten class. My editor did so when he stopped by a homeless man to offer some cigarettes. My college classmates—Austin McLaughlin, Cris Lee, and so many others—did so by joining the armed forces.
On Wednesday, I was once again on the receiving end of that infinite capacity for kindness from fellow Americans. When I published a tweet announcing my naturalization, I received a torrent of messages from Americans across the country welcoming me into the family.
As of today, I am a US citizen! 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/jVvfCzuQP1
— Yuichiro Kakutani (@kakutani_y) March 3, 2021
I expected that some of the comments would be nasty or xenophobic, but to my surprise, almost every single comment was a genuine message of congratulations. Some of the replies, however, included messages that lamented the decline of America: "Dude, are you sure about this?" "Thanks for picking us despite our huge flaws!"
I believe America is a great country, but I am also not blind to its faults. Simply being dejected about the current state of the country, however, is not the answer. I have faith that as long as Americans do not forget the spirit of mutual service and kindness that they showed to a three-year-old newcomer, we can overcome any obstacles through mutual cooperation.
Maybe this all comes off as starry-eyed idealism. Perhaps I haven't been in this country long enough for it to drain me, as it has for so many native-born Americans. But maybe that is why some Americans look to immigrants as the future of the country: Our almost naïve faith in this country is necessary to periodically rekindle the American spirit when others have lost heart.
Our country is undoubtedly in dire straits—and that's not just because of the pandemic. We are lost as a country, struggling to rediscover our moral compass. I hope that, as a newly minted American, I can play a small part in that process of rediscovery. That, I believe, will be my own service to my fellow countrymen.