Citizen Tapi


Tapi is an American citizen now — and he’s proud of it!

He came here as an AFS exchange student, from Finland, in July of 1972. He brought corduroy pants and thick flannel shirts.

He was my AFS brother. He had had years of English in school, but it was limited in those early weeks. It was my job, in those first weeks after his arrival, to figure out what he was saying and teach him some American customs and wait for his English to kick in.

I got to name ordinary things as if they were new and discover my world. He would point at something and say, “How do you say?” Learning to enunciate slowly with perfect diction, I’d say “hot fudge sundae” or “touchdown” or “flat tire” or whatever it was, and he would repeat it a few times, inviting me to correct his pronunciation. Naming old things anew. It was like being a real time poet.

I was 16 and had had my driver’s license a whole week, so I showed him around. And he taught me quite a bit also — like what it was like to discover my own life and surroundings newly, through another’s eyes. The world was actually a much bigger place back then, before cable and VCRs and internet.

The second week he was here, he played in a tennis tournament in Wilmington, NC. The mid-summer heat and humidity was a shock to his Finnish system.

He graduated from Salisbury High School, returned to Finland for another year of high school, and then returned the following year on a tennis scholarship at Wake Forest. I also went to Wake Forest, so we roomed together most of those years. He returned to Finland mid-college for one year to serve a year in the Finnish army.

After graduating, he got an awesome job as tennis director for the City of Winston-Salem, but he wasn’t able to work out the legal stuff and stay in this country. He returned to Europe taught tennis in Austria and Germany for 20 years, and then came here again.

He’s now married, living on Hilton Head, and teaching a lot of tennis.

And a few days ago he became an American citizen.

He called me, proud and excited.

He had aced the exam and won praise for his answers.

Having come from a small country that had to play its cards exactly right to stay neutral and make its way in the world anyway, Tapi had an interest in politics (Finns don’t have much of a choice) — and he had a bit of an American civics lesson many years ago.

He arrived in time to witness the Nixon-McGovern campaign. In fact, I remember the two of us standing at a strip mall in the heart of Kannapolis, the Saturday before that election, handing out brochures for McGovern. Imagine that. Long hair. Foreign accents (mine from Salisbury, his from Finland). I doubt we did good Senator McGovern any favors.

He had Marie Miller, the queen of political talk at Salisbury High in those days, for two classes a day (as I did), and rode to school each morning with me and another save-the-world guy, Boyd Gilman.

Because he was an exchange student, Sonny Allen, our mayor, invited us to go with him to the inauguration of Governor Jim Holshouser in Raleigh.

And Earl Ruth, our Congressman, got us excellent tickets for Nixon’s inauguration and had us into his office beforehand.

All of those gracious folks were Republicans, and we were way left Democrats.  And yet, back in those days, Democrats and Republicans were not enemies. They were not objects to be scorned and ridiculed. They were still human beings who could vote and think differently — publicly — and be friends with each other.

So the citizenship questions had been so easy for Tapi that he requested from the examiner something more challenging.

“Ask me another question,” he said.

She asked if he could name the original 13 colonies.

He could — and she told him he was the first to do that.

My grandparents — all four of them — were immigrants who achieved citizenship. It was automatic for me, and most of us, and isn’t really something I think about enough to be proud of — but for many people it takes something — and it’s a profound blessing. My parents had soft spots in their hearts for immigrants and what their parents had gone through to be here. They were Tapi’s American parents and would have been so proud to know about this.

Congratulations, Tapi.

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