The ceremony is on a weeknight, my children are in their school uniforms and my husband comes straight from work – meeting us at the local town hall. I am in jeans and a jumper, but people around me are dressed smartly: more suits than I have seen outside of a wedding or funeral, women in heels and dresses. We sit in rows before a podium while the mayor speaks, introducing a collection of people from local clubs and organisations who sit facing us. We each have a piece of paper with the pledge and another with the words to “Advance Australia Fair”.
On the drive over my children, aged eight and six, asked me what would happen tonight to make me Australian. We have been reading The Witches by Roald Dahl, and we joked that perhaps the Grand High Witch would come on the stage, say a spell and poof! I would turn into a mouse, or a kangaroo, or an Australian, just like them. We kept up this chatter for a few minutes until my son said, “Mum, you won’t really be different, will you?”
“No,” I said, “It’s not a spell, just a pledge. I’ll still be me, I’ll just be more like you guys. I’ll have two passports instead of one.”
I have lived in Australia for thirteen years but it has taken me this long to apply for citizenship. I have been busy: two children, two novels, a Masters and PhD. But there was another reluctance as well. I worried that it might change me, forcing me to give up something of my past, my country of birth, which is already so far away.
In the hall we stand and repeat the words to the citizenship pledge. “You are now Australians, congratulations,” the mayor says, and my throat tightens. I look back, and my family is grinning, waving. They call each of us up to get a certificate and shake the hand of the deputy mayor. There are about a hundred new citizens: young, old, entire families, fresh-faced couples. There is a sway-backed pregnant woman whose partner rushes up from the audience to take a photograph. A tall, African man in an elegant charcoal suit. There is the deputy mayor’s own wife, a glamorous blonde woman in spiky heeled boots who comes to collect her certificate and shake his hand, while the mayor jokes that the deputy mayor, like most Australians, is “punching above his weight”. I want to know all of their stories, all of these people from different corners of the world.
They call me up, and I shake hands and pose for a photograph. “Best of luck,” the deputy mayor says. We sing “Advance Australia Fair” again and now I am wiping away tears. I think of my family in the US, my family here, my children with their gap-toothed grins and accents unlike my own. It hits me all at once how ready I am to be part of this adopted country of mine. I wish it were as easy for everyone, that the words to the anthem were true: “For those who’ve come across the seas/ We’ve boundless plains to share.”
Afterwards in the hall there are party pies and lamingtons, vegemite sandwiches and tea. I get squirming tight hugs from my family and smile at the other new Australians, all of us clutching our certificates and native plants.
I was wrong: it is a spell, this jumble of words cast over us. It brings us together and sends us out again, slightly changed. Still ourselves, with our many and disparate pasts, but also belonging together: all tied now to this country we have chosen.