The most valuable thing in my room is not my laptop or a photo of my mom — it’s a bland, unsuspecting folder hidden somewhere in my wardrobe. It contains immigration documents, my student visa, my passport and other boring pieces of paper that make my very existence is this country possible. If my house caught on fire, that folder’s life supersedes that of my iPhone and even my precious waffle maker.
The precariousness of that folder is one of the countless paralyzing truths that immigrants such as myself, both in the United States and elsewhere, live with constantly. Whether it’s being reminded of my ignorance of local tropes in conversations with new friends, feeling totally helpless and alone in a new supermarket in a foreign country or just setting a hundred reminders to get my documents signed for a travel signature before the coveted yearly trip back home, the immigrant experience is grounded in perpetual insecurity.
You know that feeling of going to a friend’s house for the first time and not knowing whether you should take your shoes off or press that button on the shower panel? Or awkwardly shuffling in a sleeping bag at the end of a sleepover, wishing you were back in your warm and cozy bed? That’s a teeny bit like what leaving your home and traveling 8,000 miles to adapt to a new way of living, talking and measuring the temperature feels like. It’s not particularly awful, and you’re trying your best, but it’s going to be awkward asking Jeremy’s mom for a second serving of the pasta. After all, you’re a guest, and the last thing you want to do is seem too boisterous or entitled.
Oftentimes, this insecurity isn’t even about me. I understand that it is my duty to inform myself about this new home and its people, and every day I get closer to ordering my latte at Starbucks like an American would. But no matter how close my accent is or how well-versed I become with American antics, at the end of the day, my visa has an expiration date — I am constantly aware that my status in this country is conditional and temporary.
In my short time attending a university in the United States, I have built meaningful friendships, learned countless American truths and grown to love the little quirks this country has to offer. But the realities of immigration law will always separate me from my new homes, regardless of how many cultural lines begin to blur between them and me.
While I acknowledge this truth with a little bit of sadness in my heart, I also realize the privilege that this kind of immigrant experience comes with. I am here in the United States for a good education, for a good time and for a chance to explore whatever this country has to offer me — not because I am desperate for a new life.
Around me, I see friends and other immigrants tell this story in their own words and through their own experiences. Some of them are in a similar position to mine, here voluntarily to further themselves, our biggest complaints being the long lines at international airport customs.
But others are here, thousands of miles away from home, not by choice but by circumstances that necessitate building and sustaining a new life in this country. While going back home for me is an exhausting flight, for them it may not even be an option. And while I share some common immigrant experiences with them, I understand that their narratives are much more intense and fraught than mine will ever be. My own parents had wildly disorienting experiences leaving their homes to create new lives in new places — experiences I can only imagine.
To the U.S. reader, while we immigrants may have different stories to offer you when you come into our homes, I am still consistently wary of sounding too complacent or entitled in this country when I share my experiences with you. And though it may unfortunately be the case sometimes — increasingly so in this political climate — this aversion to sounding entitled is not always due to a fear of being explicitly discriminated against for being foreign. Rather, it is an impasse I have reached with myself — that no matter how American I may seem in the mirror, I will always hold on to my precious, definitive, un-American past.
No amount of time spent in a new country can replace what home means to me. I left my family — and my favorite shawarma place — behind not because it’s fun to be an outsider in a new country, but to learn about and pursue new horizons and opportunities. That pursuit remains the most important, if not the only, reason that I am here today, the same as countless other immigrants all across the world.
My boring folder full of immigration documents is a reminder of my gratitude to this country and its people for allowing me to pursue a new life here. It is a reminder that this new life may very well be short-lived and that I must chase any and all opportunities that I can afford to while I’m here.
But maybe most importantly, that little folder is an object that makes me feel connected to the millions of immigrants who came before and exist around me today. Thinking about their struggles and aspirations empowers me to wade through the waters of the next new town, country or continent I may find myself in. And it is a reminder of the boundless courage of anyone who’s ever dared to leave their home behind for a better life.