Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li
PEN World Voices

I am the author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and the winner of the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review, and a Pushcart Prize.


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Arts & Letters Daily
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A Region Not Home by James Alan McPherson
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
Other People's Worlds by William Trevor
The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Crossing Borders

On (Not) Being an American Citizen

June 28, 2006

The day I left New York City, the driver who took me to the airport asked me, "What is this PEN conference?"

A conference of a bunch of writers from around the world, I answered him. He showed great interests and asked many questions about writing, being a writer and reading. In turn, I asked my share of questions, and got his life story in twenty minutes. He was born in Romania, studied to become an engineer, married a woman he had always loved and had twin daughters with her. It was around this time that life under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu (the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989) became unbearable.

"You know how it goes with a communist country," the driver said, and I nodded in agreement. He and his wife, like many of his intellectual friends, found ways to leave Romania and eventually made it to America, where their twin daughters grew up like all the other American kids.

"They don't like to read. Only when a book is made into a movie do they become interested. And I say to them, see, I got my degree, I am old, but still I have a dictionary by my hand and read whenever I can. But they don't understand it."

I believed the driver: earlier in the morning, when I went to the coffee shop next door to buy a cup of coffee, I saw him waiting in his car in front of the hotel, reading.

Once I tutored a student from Belgrade. She told me that she had never loved reading until the war started and they had nothing to do but wait in their room for the bombs to drop onto their heads, and read.

Yesterday I visited a friend and looked at some of her photographs. She is working on a project titled "becoming Americans" where she goes out to document the ceremonies in San Francisco where 1200 immigrants take the oath to become American citizens twice a month.

"It's a very emotional ceremony," the photographer said.

I looked at the faces in the prints, taken at one of the most important moments of their lives, and imagined the day when I would become an American citizen, if that day ever comes. If it is a journey to become an American citizen, what would we give up to reach the destination, and what would we bring with us that we could never imagine giving up?

Thanks so much for reading. This will be my last post on POV Borders: American ID's Border Talk.

Older: The Walled City

Link to this entry


Marina Lopez wrote on July 9, 2006 7:21 PM:

Dear Ms. Li,
I became an American citizen 4 years ago. I have come to realize that I didn't really become American that day. It has been an ongoing process that will probably last the rest of my life. I have had to ask myself: what does it mean to be an American? In order to better answer I find myself interested in things I didn't pay attention to before, because I thought they didn'g pertain me. Things like: elections, division of power among the three branches of government, American history, local and national events, the connection between taxes and quality of life, etc. I've had to grow an opinion about things, participate in the experiment that this country still is. It currently faces very serious challenges, not the smallest of which is the diversity of backgrounds of those who call this place home now. How will we write the pages of this part of the story? At times I am very scared and pesimistic, at others I feel privileged to be a part of history in themaking. Good luck with your decision, whenever your turn comes to make one.

Chris Lee wrote on August 11, 2006 4:26 PM:

Like Ms.Lopez previously posted, becoming an American Citizen is not decided by the test you take or even when you recieve the official papers. For example, my father acquired his citizenship some time ago, but it was not on that day that he truly felt American. The exact day was on the trajedy of September 11th. On that day, after sharing the grief as a nation, he finally told me: "I truly feel like an American." I too felt this sense of belonging. I wish you the best on your decision.

Diana Lu wrote on August 12, 2006 7:55 AM:

Hi, it's sad to hear that this may be your last post on here. I must agree wtih Ms. Lopez and Mr. Lee. I don't think there are specifically things you can give up and/or things you can bring with you. To be an American can't not be written on paper. Some Americans aren't even proud to be an American or even experienced the journey because they were born here. I feel it is what you encounter while coming to the States and to acutally experience American events when you can actually witness how proud some Americans are that boost up your feeling as an American even if you didn't take the test. ALthough it is a general answer i feel it really depends and you can't just have any specifics at the time. Good luck with what your decision will be.

Luis Tijero wrote on November 25, 2006 10:41 AM:

Dear Ms. Li.
I read your article and I am impressed and at the same time it's sad to know that this is your last post on this site. One thing is for sure, I am going to miss your writings.
I became a U.S. citizen more than 14 years ago and I have to say that that was the beginning of the process. To me, said process did not end there but started. I have been getting more involved in enhancing my knowledge about my country. Also about its language which I try to learn more each day, and the diversity of ethnic groups that live here. I was amazed when I learned how people started to form a country that became this big from 1, 2 , then 3 and finally 13 colonies that did not have a big size but the endurance to move forward and were determined to become independent. I also learned with disappointment how the Native Americans, the true americans, were betrayed by the ones who they welcome. Of course there are mistakes to be found in our society and history cannot be erased but at least we should try to amend those errors or horrors.
As a U.S. citizen I have a commitment in doing my part, even if it is a little one.
I wish you good luck and I hope your decision will be the best for you.

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