I’m moving to California for Mama’s job, which means in a week I’ll be tossed in with a class of American fifth-graders. I know English well enough, but I’m still afraid I won’t fit in.
I only have one more week here so I’m hanging out with my friends a lot. I tell them that I’m moving to America and their eyes get real big. For some reason, all they want to talk about is some Pledge.
“They force you to do the Pledge at school,” one says ominously. “So that you can never leave. You have to stay forever to fulfill the Dream.”
I think they’re just messing with me, but it’s still weird. It makes our goodbyes awkward.
My aunt’s home is on the way to the airport so we visit her family on our way there. Mostly I spend time with my grandfather. He gives me candy and I sit in his armchair with him one last time.
“Now, I don’t know how much you know about the States, Mago,” he says to me. “But it can be a dangerous place. When you get to class, they’re gonna try’n get you to say the Pledge, but you gotta refuse. You gotta tell them, ‘No, I will not be brainwashed’ and you stay sitting in that chair and you plug your ears and don’t look at that flag, alright? Promise me you’ll do that.”
I nod. I’m actually kind of scared now. I think it’s too crazy to assume that my Ojiisan would conspire with my friends to play a trick on me. Only that means they’re telling the truth.
“Papa, what are you telling her?” Mama says out of nowhere, startling me.
“Just sayin’ to be careful in the big city,” Ojiisan says.
“Is this the Pledge stuff again?” Mama asks accusingly. Ojiisan shifts in his seat.
“It’s true! That’s how that country got so powerful! They get kids to Pledge themselves to the flag so that they can use their souls for the Dream,” Ojiisan explains. Mama shakes her head.
It’s Monday and it’s my first day of school. My father tells me that the Pledge stuff is fake, but I’m still so nervous when he walks me to the classroom that I might cry. He leaves me and I’m left with twenty boisterous American fifth graders that wear athletic shorts even though it’s cold out. The teacher, Mrs. Gibson, makes me introduce myself to the class and I almost cry again. Then she says the words I’d been dreading:
“Can everyone please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance?” A demand, not a question. Twenty ten-year-olds rise and face the flag. The urge to stand with them is almost overwhelming.
“Hana, please stand with us for the Pledge,” Mrs. Gibson commands. Twenty pairs of eyes slide in my direction. My cheeks feel hot and I’m shaking. I’m terrified but I want to stand with the others and I don’t know why. The class watches as I rise slowly from my seat.
“Hand on your heart and face the flag, everyone,” Mrs. Gibson says. Twenty-one fifth graders do as she says and the chant begins.
Our voices move as one through the Pledge. My promise is broken. I can’t tear my eyes away from the flag. I stare at it, unblinking, and I recite every word. Why do I know the words? I can feel my pulse in my head, my chest, the tips of my fingers. The words of the Pledge fill the room, the air gets heavy with them. I can’t tell if it’s suffocating or invigorating.
The Pledge ends and twenty-one fifth-graders sink back into their seats, all of us heavier than we were before. I feel strange, sedated. My eyes keep flicking back to the flag, it’s stars and stripes watching me from the corner. My heart rate has slowed. Is it slower than it used to be?
At dinner, I know I have to make my confession. I set down my chopsticks.
“Mom, Dad,” I start. They look up at me expectantly. “I’m an American now,” I say.
Mom squints at me and Dad frowns. I pick up a fork and continue to eat.