Thursday, October 31, 2013
"So You Got Married to Get a Green Card?"
I took Kai for a haircut last week. I hadn't met the hairdresser before. After a little bit of chit-chat, she asked me where I came from and how I ended up here. This is a question I get asked all the time. I have an accent that immediately gives me away. In the last decade, my story has changed. It is getting longer and more challenging to sum up in a few polite sentences.
Some people are satisfied with: "I came to stay for one year as an au-pair, and 11 years later I am still here." Others want to know more: "So what happened that made you stay?" This is usually followed by a keen interest in my immigration status. It used to surprise me that people cared about how - and if - I got my green card. By now I had this conversation so many times that I am not surprised anymore, I am just uncomfortable.
This is how the story goes.
I came to the US eleven years ago as an au-pair (live-in nanny). Back in Slovakia, I graduated from college with a degree in molecular biology. The degree I had, the passion for research I had not. I didn't necessarily want to take care of kids, but it felt like the easiest way out. I was 22 years old and in my imagination I was living in New York City, shopping for the latest fashion trends, strutting across Manhattan in high heels, meeting fascinating people, and making invaluable friends who would open the door to whatever it was I was going to discover was my calling in life.
Instead, I found myself in Long Island, unable to afford anything but Old Navy and driving everywhere, because nothing was in walking distance (not even if I wore running shoes instead of heels). I was tossed daily between the highs of adventure, independence and thrill, and the lows of cultural shock, homesickness and a sense of having lost and being lost. I stopped belonging - the new country was too foreign and the old country was left behind.
Then I met a guy. I fell for him hard. It is said that home is where the heart is and when I met him, I didn't have a home - not geographically, nor emotionally speaking - but my heart suddenly belonged. He was the only thing that made sense to me in all that mess. He was a mess himself, but at the time I didn't see it as a problem. I was going to save him from himself, so he could be eternally thankful to me and love me forever.
When people ask about what brought me where I am today, he is a part of the answer. I could tell: "I met a guy, got married and settled down." I am with a guy, I am married and I am settled down. But then people ask: "Where did you two meet?" Or: "How long have you two been together?" Or something similar that leaves me with no other option but to explain that I was married once before, because it is obvious that the timeline doesn't fit quite right.
I don't have a problem to admit I got divorced before (not anymore). However, once I reveal this information the next question hovering over my head is: "So did you marry the first guy just for the green card?" I say that it hovers over my head because so many people ask it. So many people immediately jump to that conclusion. I find it offensive, because I feel like they are doubting my integrity. I feel like they are questioning my honesty. I feel like they disregard or downplay years of my life when I was swimming against the current, trying hard not to drown and make it work. My first marriage was never a conspiracy. I fell in love and it didn't work out. We happened to be from different countries. I didn't build borders or come up with immigration laws. I just met a guy.
It is true that I would not marry him as fast as I did if we were given the chance to date for longer without an expiration date on my visa. (I was told once, before I married him, that I was a girlfriend with an expiration date.) Nevertheless, it was never my priority to stay in the United States. My priority was to stay with the man I loved. Ironically, he left me and I stayed in the US. That's life's sense of humor for you.
If I go ahead and address it right off the bat, saying: "I married a guy and it didn't work out. I got a green card because I was married to the US citizen, but I didn't marry him just to get a green card," then I often hear: "Well, I am sure the green card was a nice bonus." By then I feel like I should call immigration services and ask to be deported, if for no other reason than just to get out of the conversation. It fascinates me how many people believe there is no better place to live than the US. There are many good things about living here. There are just as many bad things about living here. This goes for the most of developed countries.
One day I will get that story right. One day I will not have to think about what to say when the person I just met asks me if I faked my marriage for a green card. One day I will not have to feel defensive about my decision to live in the US, the decision I am not even sure was made by me, or made by circumstances. One day. Maybe.