Reflections of an alien working in the U.S.
For the past 8.5 years, much of my career and life decisions have been anchored by my identity as ‘an alien authorized to work until a specified date’. It’s certainly not the most interesting thing about me, but an ever-looming cloud that has been following me the moment I decided to pursue a professional career in the United States.
I’ve learned a lot throughout this time and I have a few reflections on the topic of being a non-citizen trying to work in a specialized occupation here in the U.S. Instead of going off on another rant in my head, I figured it might be productive and therapeutic to collect these thoughts in a short essay (in other words, publish the rant online). I have learnings to share, frustrations to get off my chest, and even a few consolations for those who might need a bit of positivity in a tough time. These are things that have been mulling over in my mind the past 8 years or so, things I wish my younger self could have known.
If you have at any point experienced living and working here as a non-citizen, I feel you. Our paths may be very different, perhaps yours even more fraught and long, but I hope I can offer some level of empathy and support. If you are a U.S. citizen, I know this doesn’t apply to you, but if you have friends who are expats and you’re interested in what goes on in their minds on a regular basis, try to give this a read.
I can only speak from my own experience, so I’ll start off by providing some context around my career trajectory and personal journey in the States, which primarily involves being on the H1B visa:
I came to the U.S. on an F1 student visa beginning 2008, for 2 years of high school and 4 years of college. I studied and acquired a degree in Graphic Design. I applied for OPT (Optional Practical Training permitting F1 students to work off-campus during and after completion of their degree), and used it to work as an intern after graduating. My first job eventually agreed to sponsor my H1B working visa in 2015, and luckily I made the draw. In my 3rd year on the H1B, my company was able to extend it 3 more to meet the maximum 6 year cap. I changed jobs twice, choosing companies that could handle the visa transfer. In my 6th year on the H1B, the summer of 2021, the company I was at began the green card sponsorship process for me, which involved a series of steps and applications. In 2022, they extended my H1B for another year to allow me to continue working while my green card application was pending. In November of 2022, just a couple days after an unexpected mass lay off, I received my temporary EAD (employment authorization document). And a month later, completely out of the blue, I got my green card in the mail. I’ve glossed over a couple of logistics and details (and distress), but this is the gist of how I got to this point.
All in all, I’ve been living in the U.S. for about 14 years, 6 of those years studying, 8 working. It took until my 12th year here to be able to apply for permanent residency. And that’s me being lucky enough to have worked at companies with the resources to sponsor me. Lucky enough to be in the design/tech industry, which is considered a specialized field. Lucky enough to have started my H1B process pre-Tr*mp administration. The journey I described above is actually pretty smooth for what it is, even with the moments of stress and uncertainty at every point of transition.
I was absolutely not expecting to receive my green card within a year of submitting my adjustment of status, especially given the circumstances of processing times delayed by a multi-year long pandemic. After getting suddenly laid off mid-green-card-process, I was worried about having to immediately port over the application to a new employer, or worse — having to start over. When I finally got the card in the mail, I didn’t even know how to feel. Relief that I could finally book a ticket back to my mother country to see my family? Relief that I no longer need to be tied to a visa as I have the past 8 years? Maybe a bit of guilt, knowing that tons of other people are still waiting for theirs, and yet for some reason, I am able to get mine. It’s just a piece of plastic, but it also represents so much. A lot of people have studied, lived and worked here for years, and still don’t have easy paths to residency or citizenship. Or they’re facing a crazy backlog. I have barely begun to process what it means now that I have a green card. (It almost feels too ostentatious and immodest to say.) I’ve been diligently working towards it for so long, with years of sunk cost. Now that I’ve got it at last, staring into the little pamphlet that came along with it that reads “Welcome to the United States”…I feel tired. I’ve been genuinely about to give up, ready to look into immigration elsewhere. Having it in my hands now, simply having plucked it out of my mailbox and seeing the piece of plastic laying on my desk anticlimactically, it feels easy to forget all the years, work, and alignment it took to make it happen. Now that I have come out on the other side, I feel like I can finally take a step back and properly reflect on the entire journey that led me here.
There was a lot I wish I would have known when I was starting out — ways I could’ve maximized my time here on a visa, the various options I could’ve had, and how I could have prepared for them. If I could provide some advice for those interested in coming here, it would be to research the different ways to legally live and work in the U.S. early, and understand ultimately what that would cost you.
The H1B visa, and other ways in
(Obligatory Disclaimer: Please know that I am not an immigration lawyer, and everything I’ve written here are anecdotes and insights from my own experience or from discussions with friends in similar situations. This is partly meant to serve as a summary or commentary to illuminate readers who are unfamiliar with the process. Please consult with immigration experts for professional guidance on your own journey. Also, if you’re already familiar and would not like to re-traumatize yourself, you can move on to the next sections.)
One of the best things you can do is educate yourself on your paths to work authorization or immigration in the U.S. early. Even if you’re not sure this is where you want to be for the long run, it’s good to connect with an immigration lawyer to understand your options. Ask your peers, professors, colleagues, family, friends if they have anyone they could recommend. Do a search on Google or LinkedIn. I have used Thumbtack.com and was successful in seeking a lawyer for consultation. (This post is not sponsored lol.) I sat with my lawyer and we discussed the likely options I had given my profession, the best path for me being the H1B. The reality with work authorization or immigration here is that you always have to be more than a few steps ahead.
Tips for international students 🎓:
If you’re on an F1 visa in college, look up any career development or international student resources available on your campus. Apply for and leverage any CPT or OPT time to build working experience and professional growth. The more experience you have, the more likely an employer is going to want to keep you. I spent my time on OPT post-graduation proving my worth to an employer that was likely to sponsor my work visa down the line.
(Mar.17,2023 Update: I’ve recently learned from peers in the industry that graphic design and computer animation are considered STEM majors, and students on OPT may apply for a 24-month extension, giving you 3 years total of post-graduation work authorization. This info would’ve been real handy 9 years ago.)
There are multiple non-immigrant visas that enable you to work in the U.S., one of the most commonly utilized being the notorious H1B. This is the path I took, therefore one I’m most familiar with and can speak about the most. A lot of us know this, but for the sake of those who don’t, the H1B is an employer-sponsored work visa. It is conducted under a lottery system, and every year only a limited number of applicants get picked. (At the time of my application, the acceptance rate was estimated to be 30%. Needless to say, I lost a bit of sleep then.) On top of finding an employer with the desire and resources to sponsor your application, there’s a chance you may not get it. There’s also a specific window in the year to apply (March/April), so it’s best to start planning early (December/January) and take all of this into consideration with your larger timeline. If you don’t get picked, you’ll either have to figure out alternatives with your company and lawyer, or try again the next year.
If you do get picked, congratulations. You might feel a bit of survivor’s guilt, but honestly making it through is a big relief. You’ll get 3 years first, and before you reach your 3rd year, make sure you’re in a stable position to request your employer to extend it for another 3. 6 years is the total amount of time you can be on the H1B. After that, you have to either: leave the country for a full year and re-enter the H1B lottery to start over, apply for alternative work visas if applicable, or find someone to sponsor a green card for you. While you’re on the H1B, it’s possible to transfer it to another employer if you want to change jobs, but you need to communicate this to your future employer to make sure they have the resources (aka money and an immigration team) to get that done for you.
H1B fun fact ✨:
The maximum amount of time you spend in the U.S. under the H1B visa is capped at 6 years, but this does not include any time you spend outside the U.S. during this period. For example, if you’ve traveled abroad for vacation or to return home, that time spent outside the U.S. can be recaptured when you return. Essentially it’s time credited back to you since you haven’t spent it in the U.S. However, note that this recapture process is not automatic. You and your H1B petitioner will need to submit a request, along with documentation such as departure and arrival records as proof. (So you better keep track of those!) Still, it’s good to know you can potentially extend your expiration date and buy yourself more time.
If you’re not able to go the H1B route, it’s possible to consider an intra-company transfer or L1 visa. This means finding work at a company overseas that has affiliated offices in the U.S., and then applying to transfer over. Maybe you can be a little strategic in the companies you’re applying to, intentionally seeking ones with American branches.
Another path is the O1, or the extraordinary ability visa. It’s kind of exactly what it sounds like. You have to prove that you’re an extraordinary person in order to get this visa. I’m talking binder-full of evidence to prove things like ‘sustained national or international acclaim’, distinguished awards and achievements, and prominence as a renowned, leading figure in your field. Like the H1B, the O1 is also tied to a specific employer sponsor. I know a couple people who have gone down this path, one of them being a close friend. It’s possible for sure, but it does seem quite intensive with a lot of commitment and documentation involved. I don’t think I would have had the gumption or the straight up drive to get through it, but I’m no expert on the O1. On the other hand, maybe this could be motivation for you to take opportunities you wouldn’t normally take — for the sake of your employment/immigration journey. It could push you to speak at conferences, seek publication opportunities, find avenues to build a public profile, etc. If you’re interested in this path, it may help to start collecting your achievements early.
There is one more option I would like to touch upon here, arguably the most effective one. Get married, specifically to someone with a green card or an American citizenship if you want to live and work in the States. (Or alternatively, to someone with another country’s citizenship wherever you want to live and work.) Let’s face it, this is one of the quickest and easiest ways to gain freedom of employment and legal residency. Ultimately, it’s the shortest path to the highest reward: a green card. It’s been recommended to me many times, at all levels of seriousness. Listen, it’s not that I haven’t tried all these years, dating is terrible and a factor I cannot control. Nonetheless, finding a partner to marry is arguably worth the investment of time and energy, almost as much as your work visa.
There are a couple more paths I haven’t mentioned (see more types of visas here), but I’m going to save that for the professionals to tell you while we move on to the things I can tell you.
I thought it’d be helpful to highlight a couple things that have served me well during my time here on a visa.
1. Get organized
Set up a filing system to keep track of all the important documents throughout your journey here. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to be consistent and make sense to you. I have a designated ‘U.S. Immigration’ folder that I keep all my relevant files in — I-20s, I-797s, I-94s, filings, notices, applications, receipts. Basically anything from USCIS, or copies of things you have sent to USCIS. Don’t throw away any of your previous records ya doofus. That stuff is important. I’ve been asked my travel history for the past 5 years, so even your travel in and out of the States can be another data point to keep track of. If you want to be an A+ student, you can scan all of these docs and save a digital copy just in case. Your future self is going to thank you later, trust me.
2. Know your deadlines
In a world dictated by bureaucracies, we are constricted to submitting specific forms in a specific order within a specific window of time. Use whatever type of calendar or event-reminder method of your choice to mark important deadlines. I personally like to use Google calendar to keep track of major dates and events. (I also like to set faux deadlines a couple days or weeks ahead of the actual deadline, creating a bit of a buffer just in case.) Once you know your timings, you can zoom out and plan everything around that. Visa expiring at the end of the year? Well, you better find time to have a conversation with your manager or HR department to start your extension or an alternative plan of action. Take into account the time it takes for you, your employer, or an immigration team to get any paperwork completed.
3. Be proactive, look out for #1 (that’s you)
Some people call it luck. I’m obviously guilty of calling it that myself, attributing my entire career to being at the right place at the right time. But the reality is, I deliberately work to put myself in positions that would yield the most successful outcomes. Apply to jobs at companies that are most likely to offer visa sponsorships — bigger companies with more resources (again, money and immigration team), or companies with international presence that will likely have prior experience with visas. If you’re at the beginning of your career and need sponsorship, make yourself indispensable. Go above and beyond your job description. Show that you’re invested in the growth and betterment of the company, people are going to notice. Be your own representative at work. Sometimes it’s not that the company is intentionally neglecting you. Sometimes a small company doesn’t have an HR department or an immigration team, so they simply are not aware of your status. That’s why you need to be communicative and advocate for yourself. Tell your manager or boss about your current immigration status and make sure they are aware ahead of time. If deadlines are coming up, communicate that to your company early, at least 4–6 months in advance, if not more. The earlier the better. And if you are a manager, ask about these things. Make sure you’re aware and up to date with any immigration or work authorization requirements that affect your team.
4. Don’t be apologetic
This is a hard one to learn. I feel that as a non-citizen, a female-presenting person, a gay, Asian, introverted person, it’s hard to take up space sometimes. Hard to demand your worth or ask for the things you need. But the matter of fact is, if you work hard and you’re good at what you do, people will want to hire you. Sponsoring non-citizens to work shouldn’t be an exception, it should be common practice. It’s 2023 or whatever the hell it is, it’s not new that people work and conduct business all over the world. True, the logistics of U.S. immigration make it much more difficult, but that shouldn’t invalidate the value of your skill and experience. When I was starting out in my career, I felt that having a company sponsor my visa was equivalent to them doing me a massive favor, something I owed them for (to the point of me offering to cover the additional immigration and application fees; I know, madness). But today, I want to believe it’s a logistical aspect that shouldn’t affect my hireability nor my obligation to a company. It’s something that they should be ready and willing to get sorted if they want to recruit top talent regardless of their status.
5. Consider your other options
I know this sounds like a ‘last resort’ sort of thing, but our minds naturally want to anticipate all possibilities, to prepare for the worst. I say instead of preparing for the worst, it’s preparing for alternatives. Plan A does not have to be the end all be all. Talk to an immigration lawyer to draw out all your possible paths. Maybe the route you take is not the one you initially expected, or maybe you have to take a detour before coming here. Maybe you’ve set a clear path for yourself, and along the way things have changed. Start asking yourself the big questions like: Are there other places you can consider for the career or life you want to build? What would happen if you stay/return home? What kind of opportunities and experiences might you find elsewhere? What is it that you are truly seeking here in the United States? And, if you are preparing to invest your time and energy to be here for the long haul, ask yourself: Does this country ultimately serve you?
With all the amazing, formative and rewarding life experiences I’ve had during my time here, it’s not without a number of issues I’ve had to deal with on a regular basis. Administrative, emotional, logistical, existential. This section is regretfully extensive. But I want to be transparent and capture all the frustrations I’ve experienced while working here as an alien.
I guess I haven’t even given any context around that label yet. If you know, you know. For those who don’t, ‘alien’ is the official U.S. government term for ‘any individual who is not a U.S. citizen or U.S. national’. Not the most flattering term but I suppose it does sound kinda cool if you’re someone who’s into sci-fi.
Jokes aside, the government does not make it particularly easy for non-citizens to be here. There are a lot of conditions you have to meet and processes to go through, and even then you might not be approved to stay. And don’t even get me started on the user experience of the .gov websites. I’ve had to complete and submit forms that are so anti-user-friendly (timeout notices that make you want to hurl your computer out the window), that even a ‘young and computer-savvy’ person like me is left infuriated. Imagine the process for people with language barriers or people with disabilities.
Call me paranoid but I started to develop an irrational (or rational?) fear of U.S. Customs & Border Patrol. Anytime I traveled internationally and re-entered the States, I crossed my fingers and prayed that there wouldn’t be any hiccups. I can think of at least two instances where I had to be pulled aside and wait patiently for an additional 20–30 minutes for my documents to be checked, without any idea of whether I’d be able to get through or not. That’s actually pretty great for the amount of time I’ve lived here. I’m an Asian person. Imagine if I were Black, or looked remotely Latina or Middle Eastern, or if I just had a darker complexion in general. I probably would have been given a harder time. Racial profiling is real, folks.
Another reality I had to accept throughout the process of work authorization and adjustment of status is living with unpredictable wait times. There’s a page on the USCIS website that allows you to check processing times by case (or in a median chart), but this certainly depends on the type of form you’re submitting and which service center it is being processed at. Keep in mind, any given application can involve a series of forms, so the processing time in total is accumulative and often speculative. Additionally, backlogs have recently been exacerbated by the past few years of pandemic. (Remember that time USCIS tried to furlough 70% of its workforce? LOL.) Depending on where you are on your journey, it’s quite hard to plan your life beyond 6 months or a year because you are waiting on the results of your application. I suppose the uncertainty may not be a big deal for the more spontaneous types, but I’m a planner (can you tell?), and I have this compulsive need to know what’s going to happen to me.
Traveling back to your mother country or overseas may no longer be a simple affair. According to the median chart, applications for travel documents can range from 4–10 months. If there were any emergencies at home or overseas, then you might need to make the difficult decision of waiting it out, or leaving and abandoning your application. Sometimes a change in visa status or an extension would require you to obtain a new visa stamp in order to re-enter the U.S. This means having to secure an available appointment at a U.S. embassy abroad and plan around visa processing times in addition to your international travel itinerary. If you were originally looking for a quick trip abroad, it can be a lot.
Consult with an immigration lawyer to confirm your individual case, but from my experience, if your current H1B hasn’t expired but it has your old employer on it, you don’t need a completely new visa stamp to re-enter the U.S. As long as your visa is still valid and you have a new H1B approval with your new employer (plus supporting documents such as offer letter, paystubs, etc.), then you should be able to use the same H1B to enter. I certainly did not know this until I looked it up and asked my immigration team.
Needless to say, a lot hinges on your visa status here. Most work visas are tied to the specific employer that sponsored them. That means you can’t just work for anyone, or conduct any work that is not specified in your visa petition. Career-wise, this is something significant to consider. This restriction limits you to only employers who have the capacity and willingness to sponsor your visa. For a lot of bigger companies this is not an issue, as they have likely sponsored tons of visas in the past. Smaller companies might not always have the resources to do so, and if they do, they might be a little selective with the candidates they’d sponsor. There’s some pressure in that, but it’s why proving your value at your job is important. If you’re job searching, some recruiters don’t seek candidates who need sponsorship (sadly I have been dropped like a hot potato before), so communicate what you need up front.
Working for a specific employer is not an issue if you’ve found one that suits you. If you ever want to change jobs though, you’d need your new employer to transfer your existing visa over to them. For those on the H1B, if you get laid off or quit your job, you have a 60-day grace period to find a new employer to take over your visa sponsorship. If unable to find a new sponsor after 60 days, you’ll have to leave the country. Jumping from job to job has to be a little more calculated than typical. It can be frustrating if you want to quit your job and take a break for a while. Your ability to continue living in the U.S. directly relies on your employment. Sometimes it feels like you can’t make certain decisions without major consequences. In a less than ideal scenario, you are stuck at a company you are unable to leave solely because they’re sponsoring your visa.
Additionally, freelancing or doing any contract work is unauthorized if you’re on an employer-sponsored visa. For someone in the creative industry, this can be a huge limitation. It’s one of the major points of frustration for me. I’ve had so many jobs and opportunities that I’ve turned down over the past 8 years. I couldn’t quit and try something different to see if I’d like it. I couldn’t freelance or set up my own shop because my income had to only come from my sponsor. I couldn’t work at certain boutique or small design studios because they wouldn’t be able to sponsor me, barring me from gaining professional experience in those particular spaces. And I’ll be the first to admit…at some point, this limitation also became an excuse. Saying “I can’t” became an instant reaction. It’s always the dumb visa. If I was feeling stuck and needed a change to grow creatively or professionally? Well, I can’t. It’s not that simple. I have the visa to think about, and the long-game. But the thing is, if you really wanted to make something happen, you could try to find a way around it. Try not to let these restrictions kill your drive. Obviously you can work under the table at your own risk and discretion, but I personally get quite paranoid about doing so. I have this other fear of breaking the law and getting deported.
If you’ve spent over 10 years attempting to build a life here like I have, of course you’d feel a little anxious anytime there’s a chance you might have to leave. You likely have friends, community, significant others, and a professional network you’ve built up. Maybe you have a family. Yes, there will be moments of transition when you won’t know if you have to pack up everything and go. There might be periods when it’s hard to make concrete plans beyond half a year’s time, perhaps even beyond a few month’s time. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect my interpersonal relationships. During my first few years on the H1B, I didn’t want to accumulate things. How much time will I have here? Should I invest in this large piece of furniture when I might have to leave in a year or two? I was living with roommates at the time, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy my own mug for a while. Silly things like that.
Alternatively, people on the immigration journey may also deal with the opposite problem of not being able to go back to their mother country or travel abroad for years. If you have submitted an application for a green card, there’s a period of time while it’s pending when you are not allowed to leave the U.S., else you abandon your application. An approved Advance Parole document gives you travel authorization, but confusingly the notice suggests that there is still risk in leaving the U.S. because re-entry is not guaranteed; it depends on each individual case and is up to the Customs and Border Protection officer to decide. A fork in the road. You want to go home and see family, a trip long overdue. But if you do so, at worst, you need to be prepared for the possibility that you may not re-enter the U.S. It’s hard to gauge how high or low the risk is, so it’s best to consult an immigration lawyer to understand your situation. At the end of the day, you have to decide what is most important to you. There are people literally waiting years to see their family. But the past few years of pandemic have stirred up something inside me, and many of us I’m sure. I grew tired of waiting. We don’t always have the luxury of time.
There are moments, at critical points of transition, when you may find yourself imagining less than ideal outcomes. On the subject of ‘Where else will I go?,’ this question hits particularly hard for people from U.S.-colonized countries or people with American-influenced environmental upbringings. If much of your education is American-based (this means American-influenced either within the United States or outside the United States in a post-colonial context), it’s natural to find that the U.S. is the place you feel most at home. One of the best things about the U.S. is its immigrant population (if not the best thing). There are so many different types of people here, from all over the world, it feels possible to find a home for yourself here too. It’s frustrating that the immigration journey here feels like an obstacle course, a chess game, and a marathon combined. Having to consider other places can feel scary, and might trigger another one of those good ol’ identity crises you love to have.
For many people, having to go back to their home country is not simple. Every single person has their own unique reason for wanting to stay and create a life here. For many it’s better career opportunities, higher income, higher standard of living. For others, there may be cultural and safety reasons. For some LGBTQ+ folks (myself included), going home means not knowing what their life might look like, not sure if they will have the physical and psychological freedom to live an out life as themselves, not having the right to marry. If you’ve lived or worked in a progressive city in the U.S. you know how good we have it. Having lived in San Francisco for over 8 years, the inclusivity, sensitivity and compassion towards folks of different backgrounds is something to be grateful for.
Even when things go right, there is definitely a weird tension of not wanting to celebrate any document you receive from USCIS until after getting clarity on what it really means. I don’t know if this is just me, but I refrain myself from jumping to any conclusions or feeling any kind of relief until I have consulted with an immigration lawyer. For the longest time, the moment I relaxed was the moment something fell through the cracks and came back to bite me in the ass. Nothing is set in stone until I see that physical document in my hands. (I think this is where all my trust issues stem from. Listen, when I had to abruptly pack up my apartment and leave the country once, something broke in me.) When I got my EAD, solidifying the fact that I’m no longer tied to the H1B, I needed to hear the words from an immigration lawyer to fully accept what it meant.
My immigration status has probably dictated 70% of my career decisions, but it also bled into other aspects of my personal life (whether I can make plans in a year, why I can’t travel out of the country during a certain time, or why I had to leave the country while my paperwork was processing.) It wasn’t a surprise when it became a frequent topic of conversation with family, friends and colleagues. But there was never a simple summary I could give them. There were moments in my life that were quite stressful to me — it’s hard to switch it off in my brain until I saw some kind of resolution — but I didn’t want our conversations to be so riddled with my anxieties. I didn’t want to be a downer all the time. So if I could, I omitted talking about my immigration concerns in certain settings. Talking about it with friends felt like a drag, so I had to navigate between being truthful of what had been worrying me, and refraining from sharing too much of the burden with them. It was definitely tough to balance, and I constantly felt self-conscious whenever I talked about it. What had been extremely helpful to me though, was talking to the friends and colleagues who were in similar situations and understood exactly the process I was going through. It helps to get things off your chest; all your worries, frustrations, and even moments of relief. It’s incredibly therapeutic, being able to reflect off of them (thanks Jess), and also having your feelings validated. For those who get it, you can speak in shorthand. You don’t need to explain the intricacies of the whole bureaucratic system, you can get right into the nexus of the situation. Maybe your peers can provide an alternative perspective too, asking questions you haven’t thought to ask yourself.
All of these obstacles definitely take an emotional toll on you. Not gonna lie, it’s been mentally exhausting. You will probably have a couple of meltdowns (I had 1 last year, and 3 the year before that), but I have tried to rebrand these as character growth moments. I agree, it’s a lot more character building than you signed up for, so I hope you will also take time to be compassionate to yourself, and seek emotional support from those close to you. Do whatever you need to do (within legal reason) to manage your stress.
I believe I have gone on about my frustrations quite enough. Maybe it’s been pent up for so long, I really needed an outlet to rant about it all. Sometimes timing doesn’t work out and you find yourself in a situation. Sometimes you spend all your time and energy planning your life, and those plans get shit on and thrown into a raging dumpster fire. It’s not fair, but you’ll be okay. You can’t plan for everything, especially when there are a million factors that are out of your control. It’s not your fault. I’m telling you right now, it’s not your fault. You’re gonna find a way to figure something out, as you always have.
I hope I can provide a bit of comfort in the following section.
Please believe me when I say this essay is not written with the intention of being discouraging, I know the previous segment was hella long. Let me attempt to make up for it with a couple of consolations.
It’s true that there are perks to working in the U.S., beyond the obvious and deeply personal reasons for building and maintaining a life here. I’ll start off with the most tangible and practical perk, and often a major motivator for people to come here: money. Having an American income, working in the field that I work in, (and in the city I currently work in), is a privilege. I don’t think I’d be making as much anywhere else (if I’m mistaken, please let me know, lol.) The creative industry here is also very extensive and active, with tons of opportunities from broad to specific. I can’t say what my career might look like if I took another path, but my time here has given me a lot of professional growth and the chance to work with some high-profile clients.
Beyond professional experience, there are inevitably lifelong skills I’ve gained because of this journey I’ve taken, attributed to all its ups and downs. If you are going down a similar path of trying to live and work here as a foreign national, you will likely pick up the following learnings as well.
First of all — persistence, and a whole lot of patience. You will learn how to stick through a hard time. Whether you like it or not, you will learn how to make compromises, and how to handle the limitations you’re bound to.
You’re gonna become really good at managing your expectations, especially when plans change. This was a very hard lesson for me personally. Learning how to let things go, learning to accept it when things don’t go the way you wanted, or the way you’ve intentionally prepared for. It feels increasingly difficult to pivot the more time, energy and emotional investment you pour into these plans (especially when they can be as significant as not being able to travel home to see your family.) But there’s no growth without struggle. I would say managing expectations has taught me how to respond to non-ideal situations in a more collected way. You learn to become a more flexible person, understanding that in order to navigate the world, sometimes you need to adapt and make compromises. It’s certainly taught me to become a less angry person.
Listen, you’re gonna become so organized, so good at keeping track of documents. It’s almost like your life depends on it.
You’re going to become really good at planning and thinking ahead, a skill learned out of necessity. You’ll have deadlines to keep track of, and an expiration date on your visa. It’ll become intuitive for you to look beyond a year, 2 years, even 5. If you’re a planner like myself, forcing yourself to create a roadmap for the next couple years is a good way to zoom out and keep an eye on key milestones. However, I’d recommend you take the roadmap you create as a mere suggestion. It’s important to check back in with yourself to see if the path you’ve mapped out is still the way you want to go. Things change. The world changes. You have changed. Don’t wait til you’ve gotten to the end of your journey to plan what’s next, you might not realize you need to pivot until you confront that possibility.
You might become really good at completely changing your itinerary, booking and rebooking flights and living accommodations at a given notice. Obviously it’s a place of privilege to be able to financially stomach the fees and expenses that incur from a sudden move or change in travel plans (it makes me wince just to think about it). Many people don’t have that luxury, or even backup funds in the case of emergencies. There’s only so much you can do when things are out of your control, but one thing you can do is be prepared. Hopefully it won’t come to this, but if a situation calls for it, you’ll learn how to keep calm and make decisions in a stressful time. You’ll learn how to think logistically, become very good at packing, and learn to detach yourself from materialistic things.
The longer you’re in it, the more comfortable you may be not knowing future outcomes. You’ll learn how to sit with uncertainty, and be okay with it.
With all the trials and tribulations you go through, you will have learned how to ask for what you need. You’ll learn how to be resourceful and how to have those kinds of conversations with the relevant people in charge of helping you stay and work here. With your experience, you’ll also become good at advocating for others who are on a similar journey as you.
If things don’t work out here and you ultimately need somewhere else to go, the good news is that there are other options. I would recommend looking into working or immigrating elsewhere, or hacking a remote work life. I wish I had learned this lesson sooner, but I had to go through some stuff (see the past 8 years of my life) in order to gain this perspective. And I have to acknowledge that I’m absolutely privileged to have been able to visit other countries to get a sample of what life might be like over there. Not everybody has the resources to do that, nor the choice. If you find yourself able to entertain the idea of another country but you’re concerned about starting all over again from ground zero, don’t worry. You actually won’t. This time around, you’ll be moving on with your existing personal and professional network, with all the experience you’ve built up until this point of your life. You’re smart, you’re capable, you’re resourceful. And so damn organized. If you can handle the immigration system in the States, you can likely handle anything else.
At this point you may ask, looking back, if it was worth all the trouble. Today’s version of me is able to say that there’s no right or wrong (Everything Everywhere All At Once, anybody?), there’s only the choice you made and everything else that comes along with it — the grief and the immeasurable reward. How can you possibly weigh this decision against the multitudes of life experiences linked to it?
If the question is whether I’d do anything differently, I’d say yes. I would have tried not to put so much pressure on myself, not to be so fearful if things ‘didn’t work out’. I had to be taken out of my situation unwittingly to see that the path I had planned didn’t have to be so rigid and singular. I also would have tried to travel home more frequently to see family during the periods of time when I could.
If you’ve read this far, I genuinely hope you’ve gotten something out of this long venting session. If anything, I hope I can offer myself as a person to commiserate with, as someone who can understand and validate any shared experiences you may have gone through. I also hope I could provide some assurances that things will be okay.
I’m still reflecting on what it means for me now that I have reached the so-called ‘end’ of my immigration journey here, both for my personal and professional life. (Even in writing this essay, having to change the verb tenses from present to past is a bit inconceivable for me.) I’m excited to take a mental break. I’m excited to explore and define my own working life now that I have the freedom to do so. I’m excited to put up art in my new apartment. I’ve come out of this still intact, albeit a little bruised around the edges. Nowadays I’m happy to take it a day, a week, a month at a time. I trust myself to make decisions, to figure things out. Anything beyond a year looks hazy to me, but that’s okay, I’ve worked to provide myself the luxury of options. All I can say is that I’m here, for now.
Story told by Amelie Au