The New Americans

Judith Christian.

“I’ve never voted in my life, at age 45.”

My name is Judith Claire Christian.

How old are you?

On the 21st of this month I’ll be 45.

I should add by way of disclosure that Jude and I know each other. We send our kids to the same school. Jude, what do you do?

What do I do? That’s a really good question. As a profession I am trained as a nurse practitioner. I’m the volunteer medical director at the Orange County Free Clinic, and up until last year I was their daytime nurse practitioner. I ran the clinic out there. I still volunteer out there for clinic one day a week. I build labyrinths for conferences and for private use, permanent ones and temporary ones, and I sing Irish music in a band. I’m the mom of three kids. I guess the list goes on.

You’ve lived in the United States for quite some time; how long have you lived here?

I have lived here for 25 years.

Tell us why you chose to be sworn in on the Fourth of July, 2016, after all that time?

The three children had a big part to play. My oldest two, Olivia and Ronan, are 13 and 11, and they’re exploring civics in various different ways in school, and the question would come up who voted or how you voted. They discovered that neither my husband nor I voted until two years ago—well, two years ago Rob became a citizen at Monticello on July 4 and has voted ever since. And, so, then the question was, Mom, why aren’t you voting?

The conversation started there. And then 2016 specifically, I can’t say it wasn’t because of the particular nature of this election and the questioning of the quality of the immigrants in this country and their position in society, what they give to this society, what they bring with them.

There’s a straight line between for you from the kind of conversation around immigrants and immigration that was going on throughout this campaign and your decision.

Yeah. I think it was going to happen. It was the trajectory I was on to become a citizen. So it’s not as if this was the reason I did and otherwise I wouldn’t have; that would be untrue. But it certainly was the reason why this year because it’s become such a central issue within the campaign for both of the major candidates.

Tell us where you’re from.

I’m from Norfolk, England.

Tell me about Norfolk.

Norfolk is down in the south about two hours north of London, an hour north of Cambridge near the east—where I grew up was about 10 miles from the ocean. All rural country. My father’s a farmer, but he was also very strongly involved in politics. And my mother—may she not hear this—really did not enjoy doing a lot of the meet-and-greet work that my father did in politics. And, so, I became the surrogate wife that went to all of these political events.

You’re shaking hands with strangers at a young age.

Shaking hands with strangers, and smiling, and making small talk, and it got over pretty quickly. But, you know, my father would ask me my opinion of particular people, and you came to sort of learn whether you felt like it was a politician you could trust or a politician that you couldn’t very often by the handshake, and Dad would go, so, what was the handshake like? And I was, like, Oh, it was horrible, it was all limp. So certainly politics were a big part of my childhood, that and farming.

And what brought you to the United States?

Everybody was traveling their gap year after high school. Everybody takes a gap year. It’s even sort of recommended. I don’t know now, but certainly back then it was recommended before you went to college. And everybody was going to Europe, so I said I’ll be the rebel and go to America. Of course, now I’m here, and it’s really expensive to visit Europe. I’ve seen a lot less of Europe than many Americans. But, yeah, that was the very first impetus. And then I came over on one of those work-at-a-summer-camp-get-a-work-visa, and then you can extend to travel for a while and, yeah. So, traveling is in our blood. I’ve got family all over the world, so it’s not unusual to just leave home at 17.

And what was the thing when you were 17 that made you say, huh, the United States is an interesting place to visit?

America was larger than life. I mean, it was bigger, brighter, more colorful. I did have some weird assumption that all men over the age of 50 wore plus-fours and strange long socks and played golf. I mean, there was some really strange things that you take for granted. But, no, honestly it was because it was different. It was bigger and brighter. It seemed like it would be the cool place to go.

Where is your husband from?

He’s from the Isle of Man. So, the Isle of Man is part of the United Kingdom, but is not Great Britain. They have British passports, but you’re a Manx when you come from the Isle of Man, and you have a very strong self-identity.

And did you meet here?

At the University of Virginia.

So, you were just sort of two people who weren’t from here who came here and found each other here in the United States.

And found each other here. We would have never have met where we were. I’m as far east as you can get, and he’s far away—it takes 24 hours to travel from one place to the other or at least the full day when we go home to see family.

And when you met here, were both of you planning to stay or was it a sort of collective decision that, OK, we’re going to stay in the United States?

Yeah, that’s a good question. No, we didn’t, actually, plan long-term. I remember having a conversation, and we were finishing up university at that point, and both had the option to stay in the States and work and we sort of had a 10-year plan. Eventually we’ll go home. But, you know, 10 years—we’ve been educated here. I was in nursing, and he was doing his Ph.D. in chemistry. Certainly my training was going to be very specific to America and did not translate, so it wasn’t going to be easy to go back; so, having just got trained as a nurse, it made sense to stay here. But, yeah, originally it was the 10-year plan.

Charlie Powell

And did you always feel welcome here? Did you always feel that Americans were as big-hearted and generous as Americans like to be seen?

I would say for the most part I did. I think if experiences come to mind that were not so positive, they were on an individual basis. But as a collective, people were always really open-hearted and really ready to help and pitch in. You had to work, but people were ready to put in a good day’s work and so forth.

I was there at Monticello when you got sworn in on July 4. Did it feel different being a citizen? Did you go to bed that night and say, something has shifted? Or was it just kind of pro forma? Do you feel American?

Probably halfway in between would be the honest answer. I will never lose my Britishness. I will never be able to say I’m not English, but I felt more American. I would say it was a pretty emotional moment when we went through the ceremony, but the piece that made me cry was when—like I say, I get choked up—was when I handed in my paperwork and registered to vote. Because I’ve never voted.

So, it’s not that I can now vote in this country. I can now vote. I’ve never voted in my life, which is why saying I’m 45 is worth saying, because I’ve never voted.

And what do you say to the people who don’t vote because their vote doesn’t matter, it’s statistically insignificant, the system is rigged anyhow? Why is that the component that gives you goosebumps?

Because I think I realize that it gives me a sense of choice and participation being a part of a wider community. It offers connection. I think if people choose not to vote, that’s their choice. I would like to think that people make an active choice not to vote rather than just dismissing that they can but can’t be bothered. And I think like many things, we discover what it really feels like to have something when we no longer have it. I would never lecture people to vote, but to take a moment to imagine if you didn’t have that right, what, you know, what it might feel like.

When we spoke at Monticello, you talked about a song that was kind of going through your head as really emblematic of what this country meant to you and what coming to America even 25 years later meant to you.

So, the song’s proper title is “Isle of Hope.” I call it the Annie Moore song because it’s about Annie Moore who was, in the song, 15 years old. She was the very first immigrant from Ireland to step across the threshold on Ellis Island when it opened. She was given a gold piece to celebrate it. And the song talks about leaving everything behind.

And when I was thinking about it on July 4, I’d been thinking about what I wanted to say because I wanted to stand up and speak, and everybody at the end of the ceremony gets to stand up and speak. I didn’t feel like I had a tale that needed to be told of my life journey, but I felt that it was so important to stress that there’s this barrier between where the folks who are getting sworn in and the audience. We’re the immigrants who get to be sworn in, and yet all the people—bar those who may say that they are Native American—we’re all immigrants as well.

And the sense of rather than delineating us as separate, that we are all, but for a chosen few, immigrants to this country. And, so, the song spoke to me about that; that we all have that at our roots. If it’s not Irish, it’s something else. And there was a little part of it that felt a little awkward because it holds on to thinking about home, and I was feeling like I should be feeling more American, and I really shouldn’t be holding on to the part of home.

And then it dawned on me that what makes America unique is not just that we’re all immigrants, essentially, but that we all bring pieces of home to America, and that’s not something we should be ashamed of. We should bring that and it’s a unique characteristic of each one of us that just adds to the most amazing melting pot.

So for you, Annie has this symbolic meaning, which is here’s a person who’s arriving at Ellis Island, her whole future is before her, but she’s also a little bit longing for home.

At first I identified with her very specifically because in real life she was 17 years old when she came to America. She never went back home. But the part was her age. She really came with nothing, a small bag, and made everything in her life in America. I definitely resonated with that, and I felt, well, I don’t know if I can sing the song and say that that’s my song, because I get to go back. But everybody moves on. Life changes. The place where I grew up, it’s never the same again. I get to visit, and I am truly grateful for that. For other people who are not ever are able to go home, I understand that, but it will never be the same again, you know? People get older, friends and relatives die. And it really does still change, even though you still get to go back. So, it’s a big step to leave that behind.

I’m going to have to ask you to sing for us. Would you be so kind?

Absolutely. And I should say, this is not a traditional Irish song. This is a song written by a very famous Irish songwriter called Brendan Graham known for winning songs at Eurovision Song Contest. So, it made me laugh when I looked up his history. I was like, I should know more about this man if I’m going to sing this song. And it’s a song whose story which changes as well. So, it turns out that Annie Moore was not technically the first person in line.

There was an Austrian gentleman who was apparently—they had lottery tickets, and you drew a ticket, and you would see who came out first, and he came out first. Her parents had already moved to New York, so it was her and her two younger brothers, and he went, No, the gentlemanly thing would be to let you go first, so Annie was allowed to go first and win the equivalent of about $300 at that time. With the gold bar or the gold coin or whatever it was. That was at the generosity of an Austrian gentleman. You can see that as a larger discourse of interaction between different countrymen. So, here’s the song.

On the first day of January 1892, they opened Ellis Island, and they let the people through.

And the first to cross the threshold of that isle of hope and tears was Annie Moore from Ireland who was only 15 years.

Isle of hope, isle of tears, isle of freedom, isle of fears, but it’s not the isle she left behind. That isle of hunger, isle of pain, isle you’ll never see again, but the isle of home is always on your mind.

You said you love this country. What is it to be American to you? What is about this country that makes you at age 45 say I’m American?

I should have done it earlier. It has to be the people. It’s hard to say those things and feel I need to qualify it with “Oh I love my home folks, too.” But I love the connections that I’ve made here, the community that I have, the expats that I know, the Americans that I know, the folks I know who’ve never met someone English. The example of the job as nurse practitioner where I’ve met a lot people who don’t do what I do, who have grown up and stayed Orange County, and we seemingly have nothing in common. And yet it is the best job I’ve ever had because of the people. The laughter, and the commonalities—without the people that I’ve met I wouldn’t have been able to achieve the things I have today. The place is beautiful; I could say a number of other things, but at the core, it’s the people.