I’ve been a green card holder for about five years. Typing that made me realize how incredibly long these last five years have felt. Before that, I was living in New York as an international student, first as an undergrad followed by three years of grad school. 2007 was a weird time to start college. George W. was still president. During my sophomore year, the financial crisis happened and I spent that summer interning at a division of the New York Times, where hundreds of people got fired the same week I started. (I should note that I was an unpaid intern, a thing that was still allowed to happen back then.)
Throughout college, I was aware that my time in America was always going to be limited by my student visa. I was told, over and over again, by counselors and the international students office, that my best chance of obtaining a work visa was to apply to big corporations that could afford giving out visas in the first place. I saw many of my international friends become reluctant economics majors despite their other passions, so that they could become investment bankers or consultants. But I was stubborn, idealistic—maybe a little naïve. I thought maybe I could find a way to stay in New York without giving into the corporate path. I majored in philosophy, almost to spite the practical world. I remember thinking that if I were an American, I’d spend my post-college years working at an independent bookstore while also being a bartender or barista and that I’d write novels in my free time.
I said very different things in my personal statements to MFA programs, but the reality back then was that I was desperate to stay in the country where the language and culture matched my inner ramblings, and I needed to procrastinate a little before figuring out exactly how to stay here legally.
Being an international student puts you in a kind of limbo, immigration-wise. The student visa implies that you’re intending on going back to your home country after you complete your studies. You’re not allowed to get paid for work exceeding 20 hours a week. You’re asked to pay more for college, and you definitely don’t want to stir up any trouble that could result in expulsion which would naturally lead to deportation.
America—and New York, especially—made me feel guilty if I ever complained. “You get to be here,” this place seemed to say. “You always have the option to go back to where you came from.”
Those who know me well know the story within this story, which is that in the fall of 2007, I happened to fall in love with an engineering student who also happened to be Japanese and grew up with a similar background. He had been a green card holder when I met him, but somewhere in the early 2010s, he gave up his Japanese citizenship to become an American (as Japan doesn’t allow the dual status). There are many stories to be told here, too, but the crux of it is that he did this so that I could stay and obtain a green card through marrying him, which we ended up doing three times (another story for another time).
Having gone to a fiercely feminist women’s college, it felt like a cop-out to go this route. On paper, it would seem that our marriage was a sham, just so I could fulfill the millennial dream of living in New York with a cute job in publishing (an industry that is notoriously closed off to non-U.S. residents). In fact, the USCIS did end up suspending my application at one point for suspecting this very thing. And absurdly, embarrassingly, but also kind of romantically, we had to scan our love letters and grainy selfies to prove to the government that we were authentically in love.
I still remember the relief I felt when I finally held the green card in my hands. It was heavy. It was green. But even still, the fear of deportation lingered. I could never mess up. I couldn’t even go near the possibility of messing up, which meant, among other things, I’d never accept an invitation to protest. After Trump was elected, many of my friends took the bus to D.C. with their newly knitted pink hats to participate in the Women’s March. It was an event I watched from afar, with admiration, jealousy, but also with the same neutrality that kept me out of trouble since 2007.
This isn’t my country anyway, I thought. I chose to be here. I’m a guest. I get to be here.
Fast-forward to 2020 and I’m living in Nashville, a city where we’re usually the only people of color in any room we enter, a city that’s surprised us in good ways and disappointed us in other ways. It’s also a city where I’ve given birth to two boys, who are automatically American because of their birthplace, who have names that have roots in both Japan and the American South. I want to be optimistic, for their sake. At the very least, I want them to be able to study whatever they want to study, and be a barista or bookseller if they want to without worrying about their residence.
Technically, now that I’ve had the green card for long enough without causing any trouble, I have the option to naturalize, just as Jin did, and become an American like the rest of my family unit. It would involve more paperwork, biometrics, testing, and patience, but it could be done. If I’d done this in time, I could have voted in this year’s elections.
Naturalizing would have completed this narrative in a clean and consistent way. I want to live here for the long run, don’t I? I care about my community. I communicate better in English than Japanese at this point. (I dream in English.) I watch the news and get angry and cry like my American peers. Now, whenever I hear what’s happening in Japan from my parents, I look at my home country like it’s a distant planet that I no longer recognize, and probably won’t be able to visit for a very long time.
So why remain in yet another limbo, of being a citizen to a country I don’t intend to return to, while residing in another that feels like it’s falling apart? I know it’s irrational, maybe even cowardly, but at the end of the day, this limbo is the only place where I feel safe. I know how to live in this gray area. But gradually—especially as we creep closer to Election Day—I’m finding it harder and harder to embody the quiet expectations of the grateful guest.
A little announcement: My essay, “Umbrellas on a Sunny Day,” just went live on the Belmont Story Review. It’s about being a kid during the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks, motherhood, innocence, and Murakami. I had drafted this in 2018 and forgotten about it until earlier this year, when I was asked to pitch something to their issue on “Longing.” A lot of what I wrote will sound untimely now, since it was completed and edited before the pandemic. Nevertheless, I’m glad this piece found a home, especially in a publication with some of the most professional people I’ve worked with.