The 2018 Australia Day citizenship ceremony in Newcastle was the largest in New South Wales, with 180 new citizens from 32 countries. The citizens-to-be sat on the ground floor while our friends and families filled the wings. To my left was a couple from Malaysia; to my right, a family from Sri Lanka.
The ceremony was long, but surprisingly moving.
I cried when Australia Day Ambassador Peter Gibbs told an powerful story about why he is proud to be an Aboriginal man. We were riveted by an indigenous dance performance but started to lose interest when the immigration minister’s representative gave a speech that was a thinly-veiled solicitation for votes.
I teared up again when a trio sang a slow version of Waltzing Matilda, a song about a sheep rustler who throws himself into a billabong. I think I was getting hungry and it was messing with my emotions.
Before we could become Aussie citizens, we had to read the Australian Citizenship Pledge out loud. During the application process we were given a choice between saying the oath, which includes the words ‘under God,’ or the affirmation, which does not.
On the morning of the ceremony, you receive an envelope with a fancy printout of your selection. I chose the affirmation. On the front of my card were the following words:
From this time forward,
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.
On the back it said ‘Pledge Number Two.’
The oath-readers went first, their voices rising as one as they said the words that made them Australian citizens. I stood silently, hands at my sides, feeling like a proper heathen.
“Now it’s time for the affirmation,” said the mayor.
Judging by sound there were about eight of us, including the man to my left, who I suspect recited both pledges aloud in order to make me feel less alone. It worked.
“I was pretty sure I could hear your voice specifically,” my sister said later.
When both pledges had been recited, a smile spread across the mayor’s face.
“Congratulations,” she said. “You’re all officially Australian citizens.”
I cried again, mostly from a lack of sleep and a slight hangover but also because it was a pretty big life event.
The rest of the ceremony was very much like high school graduation. All 180 of us went up row by row to receive our citizenship certificates. When my turn came, I stood at the edge of the stage, next to a portrait of the Queen (I guess I’m one of her subjects now?) and prepared to hear my name called.
A woman several spaces behind me in line went up instead. Apparently I had been sitting in the wrong seat. Excellent work.
Nearly every other person in my row had their turn when the woman at the podium called a name that was vaguely familiar.
There was a brief explosion of cheers and applause from my supporters in the rafters as I shook hands with the mayor. She glanced at my certificate.
“Lauren,” she said. “Congratulations. They’ve been waiting a long time to cheer for you so give ’em a wave.” (What she wanted to say: “Nice job sitting in the wrong seat you pagan.”)
That was it. I was an Australian citizen. I am an Australian citizen.
Well, Laureen is anyway.
It’s crazy, becoming a citizen of a country you weren’t born in. A foreign country that becomes yours with the reading of a pledge. I’m now American and Australian, though I hesitate to claim the latter.
It seems more truthful to say that I’m an Australian citizen, because to be Australian is something I’m not convinced I’ve earned the right to say. Belonging to two countries feels like a privilege, an accomplishment, a gift, though I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it besides living here without committing a crime and filling out a crapload of paperwork.
I’m already registered to vote, which is compulsory for Australian citizens. I’ve also applied for an Aussie passport—technically I can’t travel out of Australia until it comes. I can no longer enter Australia on my US passport because I don’t have a valid visa anymore.
I don’t need a visa; I’m an Australian citizen.
It feels weird to say it, so I say it out loud as often as I can.
Megan and Alex were flying out the next morning, so we drove down to Sydney after the ceremony. We stayed in an Airbnb apartment, and at one point I was in the lift with a guy wearing a bright gold AUSTRALIA jersey stretched over his belly.
“Had a good Australia Day so far?” he asked me.
“I have,” I said. “Actually, I became an Australian citizen this morning so it’s been pretty good.”
He was taken aback, not sure how to respond. Shoot, I thought. I said something weird and out of context to a stranger again. Maybe the first rule of being Australian is that we don’t talk about being Australian.
As the doors opened, he turned and gave me an enthusiastic smile.
“Welcome to the team!”
“Thanks!” I said.
I almost tacked a ‘mate’ onto the end, but I have a feeling it might be too soon.