You may think that the two experiences are poles apart, and in many ways they were, but there's something uniquely American about applying to become a fully functioning member of US society and at the same time being part of a television reality show phenomenon that tens of millions around the country watch. The government can learn a lot from the entertainment industry. After all, it's where the majority of people spend their leisure hours: in front of the TV.
Let's start with the paperwork. A ream of documentation came from The Biggest Loser sweepstakes agency. I've been a fan of the show since season one and after listening to Fiona's exhortations, I entered online to win tickets to the finale then promptly forgot about it. It came as a shock therefore, when I received the email saying I'd won two tickets. This is the largest thing I've won in my life. (I need to play the lottery more often).
It was definitely overkill, having to have everything notarized, just so that they had my acceptance that the value of the winning tickets was... $10.00. Having said that, once the forms were returned, a couple of days before the show, another email arrived with explicit instructions about how to get to the studio, what time, where to park, what to wear and what not to bring.
Are you listening INS? The Biggest Loser right up front told us NOT to wear white, NOT to wear logos or patterns and NOT to bring cell phones, or you WOULD be asked to return them to the car. The fact that Fiona and I dressed accordingly and duly abandoned our iPhones, while most person in the audience seemed to be constantly tweeting and updating Facebook, is besides the point: you get what I mean. Clear instructions help. And obviously that's one strike against me as a "real" American. I follow instructions too willingly.
When we arrived at the studio, there were people in place to wave us to the correct parking garage level then there was the obligatory line to stand in to get the tickets and go through the metal detector. So far so good. Then we came to the holding area. Very similar to the holding room at the INS except this was outside: 900 people congregating amenably in sections according to our designated seating area. We were then prodded along like cattle to another area just outside the studio before being admitted to the sound stage. And yes, it was all very civilized.
I'm not a fan of crowds. My idea of hell is getting stuck on a Carnival cruise ship with 5,000 strangers, even if it's still moving in the water, but somehow the producers made this studio with over 1,000 people in it, including cast and crew, feel, well, intimate. We were part of the performance, part of the Biggest Loser family and it made us all feel good.
There's got to be a way this can be translated to one of this country's most important rituals. Becoming a citizen is a big deal, an emotional event, and no doubt the swearing-in ceremony will rise to that occasion. But it could start at the beginning - with a more informative, helpful and friendly process, and maybe even a goodie bag at the end. We didn't get much from The Biggest Loser: a canvas bag, a reusable water bottle and a granola bar, but it was still a nice surprise.
I, for one, would proudly carry a "I Heart The US" water bottle. Are you listening INS?