An All-American Immigrant

published November 1, 2017

This is the expanded version of a piece originally published in 2015 on The Pastry Box Project.

Growing up in California, whenever I referenced “Americans”, my mother would always interject with the reminder: “You’re not one of them.”

I came home with A’s and prepared for college. “It’s not enough to be good. You have to be better. They won’t sponsor you or give you a work visa unless you’re better,” she cautioned.

The best chance I had at staying within the country was supposedly within nursing, accounting, or engineering. Boom or bust, we’d always need those workers. The Internet was new, who could say whether or not it was a stable industry? And besides, I was completely self-taught, and making websites as a hobby didn’t necessarily equal professional qualifications.

Three years into college, I decided to stop torturing myself with accounting and take the leap into web design. There was no equivalent major at my local state college, but I couldn’t afford to go to more prestigious universities, as I would then have to pay even higher out-of-state fees, and foreign students weren’t eligible for loans or most scholarships. I chose the closest thing available: Management Information Systems.

The college job board had a number of web-based internships and I scanned them excitedly, mentally matching listed requirements with past projects I’d already done in my spare time. Just one day after I submitted an application, Sun Microsystems called about their hybrid web designer/front-end developer position. To my surprise and delight, not only was I hired, but I turned out to be excellent on the job. I couldn’t believe I was being paid for this work.

Unfortunately, my graduation fell in the midst of a recession and most companies stopped the interview process once when they realized that I would require work sponsorship. I got a contract gig and kept searching. Finally, one startup was willing to take me on. The offer was well below market, even for an entry-level position. I only had two months left on my F-1B visa. I took it.

It cost $5000 altogether to hire a lawyer, draw together the supporting paperwork, and pay the fees necessary to process my H-1B application. Even with that, I was still being underpaid, but the company never let me forget for a second that they had done me a “favor” and I owed them. When I fell ill, they called the hospital to check if I was actually there and accused me of taking advantage of their generosity. My therapist strongly encouraged me to walk away, but I knew I’d be at risk of deportation if I quit without the backing of another company, so I simply bided my time.

Many years later, I sit anxiously in the waiting room of the local United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office. A woman comes out and calls, “Wee…Shun?” Having heard many a butchering of my legal name over the years, I know she means me. It’s a good thing we don’t have to shake hands, since my palms are sticky with sweat.

In a small office, the officer carefully flips through my unusually thick file. To no one’s surprise, I coast through the reading and writing test. The real challenge for everyone is the civics exam.

The woman double-checks when I tell her the full name of our current vice president (“No one’s ever given me his entire name before!”). Though I expected ten questions, it turns out that six correct answers in a row stops the test early. When asked about every trip I ever took outside the country, I curse myself for not having memorized my previous travel dates.

She pauses and looks me in the eye. “I’m recommending your case for approval. You should be able to come back for your naturalization ceremony this afternoon.”

I am ecstatic, but it doesn’t feel real yet. Most people have to wait months between interviewing and taking the Oath of Allegiance; I get to become a citizen within the same day.

At the ceremony, I realize that I’m severely underdressed, sporting only a simple blouse, pants, and boots, while everyone else is in formal wear, with dress shoes to cap it off. They ask us to sing the national anthem. When we get to the high note in “the rocket’s red glare,” there’s an awkward moment as I’m the only one still singing.

In a flash, everyone is celebrating and taking photos in front of the American flag, and I’m sitting in the car with my husband, staring at my Certificate of Naturalization. I sign into Slack to share the news of my naturalization with coworkers.

Amidst the wave of congratulations, reality begins sinking in. I’m overcome with a giant sense of relief. At last, I am officially an American.