Monday, March 13, 2017

Another immigrant story

I don't even claim to fully understand the extent of the discrimination and the anguish immigrants and their families recently affected have gone through. It is beyond my imagination. To be denied entry into your home must be the worst form of humiliation. And fear. And then to be shot, killed, become victims of hate crime! But I am an optimist and keep hoping that things will only get better from here.

In the light of this, I share a snippet of my own immigrant story. I do not even claim to equate the horrors of my story and the stories of people who were detained or were recent victims of hate crime. I have never suffered the horror and humiliation of refusal to entry, have never had a gun pointed at me, and pray that I never do. My purpose of sharing this personal story is to show solidarity among the immigrant community. Because specific immigrant experiences made me hardy, putting a thick cover on my skin and an extra spine while teaching me to let go of shame and self-doubt. And because although we are all a part of the tight-knit immigrant community, no two immigrant stories are the same.

I have been an immigrant since 2006. I moved to the US because I had heard great things about this country from other people, and I was mostly motivated to travel, see the world, go to a US university, and live independently. That was my basic agenda. I was 25 and believed that I had endless life possibilities (I still do). So despite vehement protests from the family, I said "okay goodbye see you!" and made a new home in an unknown country.

Between then and now, I have been severely affected by visa issues twice. I was working full-time both the time. As a result of this, I was forced to become unemployed and homeless twice. The first time, I was unemployed for eight months, homeless for five. The second time, I was unemployed for two months, homeless for two. For a single-earning member, it is like jumping off a cliff in the middle of the night in your pajamas and without a parachute, not knowing where and when you are going to land and if you are going to survive the fall. The sinking feeling of dread at the core of the stomach we talk about is a very real, bodily feeling I have experienced many times.

Both the times, the community jumped to help me, providing me shelter, food, a safe environment, a warm comforter, and love. I lived in different people's homes, in labs, at universities, sometimes sleeping on the couch, sometimes in my own room, but never in my car (though it was a real possibility too). Dozens of people leaped forward to take me home with them.

I had to leave the country. Twice. Never stayed illegally even for a day. Always came back legally. Both the times, some recommended getting hitched to a US citizen for reentry. Never contemplated doing such crazy shit. No self-respecting human should have to marry for need or convenience.

I was able to turn it around both the times.

The first exile was for five months. Went back to Kolkata. Had a blast. Came back to do a PhD with full scholarship in a great school. My life got even better.

The second exile was longer. Two years precisely. Moved to Germany. Had a blast. Traveled all over Europe. Came back as a tenure-track faculty.

Being an immigrant has taught me resilience. It has been a mental and bodily exercise to let go of the shame, embrace the uncertainty, and take whatever life offers. I hope that I do not have to leave a third time, but I am always prepared. It's like a fire drill one gets used to. With every move, I learnt to pack my bags more quickly than the last time. And I always figured how to find my way back. Because while Kolkata is home, this is home too. Homes do not depend on the country of birth or citizenship.

All said, I know that I still come from a position of privilege. If it ever comes to me going bankrupt and on the streets, I have a pretty good Plan B. I can always go back to living with the parents. There will always be free lodging, free food, plenty of love, and I am sure I can find a job too. That's a great backup plan to have. Not all immigrants have that Plan B.

The immigrant resilience should never be underestimated. Many who live in their privileged bubble and never have to deal with immigration issues have no clue what it feels like. 

I look forward to hearing other immigrant stories of courage. Because stories are powerful. Stories build human connections. Stories bind us together, especially during times of hardship. And because no two immigrant stories are the same. Please drop me a line if you write and publish your story.


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