By Nelson, ASPIRE (Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education) Member
In honor of National Coming Out Week: Undocumented and Unafraid we are featuring stories of API dreamers. The DREAM Act would provide undocumented students that arrived before the age of 16 in the US a pathway to legalization.
I wake up to the alarm clock’s buzz; it’s 8:30 AM.
I hit the snooze button and throw it under the covers. For the next hour, I lie half-awake, wishing the morning sun hadn’t risen yet. For the next hour, I struggle against myself, trying to rally myself to rouse, all the while berating myself for being so lazy and so worthless.
Eventually, I roll out of the bed. I take a shower and brush my teeth. Hurriedly, I munch down a small oatmeal bar, and I’m off to school. Carpooling with three of my roommates, I’m thankful for the lift. But all the while, I’m dreading the trip. I’ve got two more midterms, a couple more labs, and several more papers before this week is up. And all the while, I wonder about how my mom is doing, while she’s in back in Macau.
As a single mother with three kids, she took a big risk when she brought my sister, brother, and I to America. Hardship is nothing new to her; as the eldest of five siblings, she worked hard to make sure her three young brothers were fed and cared for after her dad passed away when she was 8. She went off to work at the local hospital as a teenager, and by age 23 had ample experience as a nurse. My father swept her off her feet and they were married, but a decade after they had exchanged vows, demanded that she leave the family so that he could situate his mistress in her place.
Desperate to protect my siblings and I, she brought us to America to stay with her relatives. While the three of us were distracted by the sights and attractions of a new land, my mom tried to sort out her marriage. When it was apparent that there was nothing for us to return to in Hong Kong, she sought help from her family her in the United States. She asked her brother, a naturalized citizen, to help petition her for residency, but misunderstandings made that plan fall apart. Instead, her cousin helped us get student visas and enroll into public schools in the city. Meanwhile, she bought a house and worked through her other cousin’s laundry business, with the intent that she’ll eventually naturalize herself and my family.
Unfortunately, that plan never worked out the way she wanted. The cousin who employed my mom, and eventually my brother and sister, paid below minimum wage and worked them for longer hours. That cousin’s parents had an eye on my mom’s house, and wanted my mom to marry their son and take care of their family, under the premise that the marriage would grant her and my siblings status. Feeling threatened, my mom broke those ties and sought work at a textiles sweatshop, while my siblings worked elsewhere. Through arthritic hands and food pantries, my mom and siblings saved up enough money to afford my sister’s college education.
Eventually, my mom began her process to legalize, but it wasn’t out of the recognition of her strong work ethic, her contribution to the nation’s economy, her dedication to her children, or to her many hours of volunteering for the community. No, the only pathway she had was through an immediate family member who was a naturalized citizen.
I arrive at the library. It’s 11:00 AM.
I whip out my notepad, and start to write. For the next hour, I wrack my brain, trying to remember past testimonies I’ve written and heard. For the next hour, my headache, from sleeping at six hours this morning and two hours the previous, beats against my skull.
Finally, the migraine gets too much. I down a couple Tylenols, and take a walk outside. I grab a croissant, and take bites between sips of water. It’s not much, but it keeps my stomach from grumbling. All the while, I worry about how this week will turn out. And all the while, I wonder about how my sister got through school, when she had so much on her plate.
See, the only way for my mom to legalize was if one of her children got married. And so, my sister got married.
It was a big risk for my sister to take that leap of faith. All the legal advice she had was from a legal clinic in Chinatown. She wasn’t entirely sure if her high school sweetheart was the “one,” but she took the chance. They took their vows and filed the paperwork, but unfortunately he ended up cheating on her. Luckily, his parents sided with my sister, and the two of them stuck through it until she was naturalized. After she received her citizenship papers, the two divorced, and my sister submitted petitions for my family to become legal residents.
My mom was the first one to receive her green card. She petitioned my brother and I soon after, but we later learned that the two of us could benefit not from the petitions, since our student visas expired long ago. If the visa numbers come up for our petitions we would have to consular process at the risk of a 10 year bar on re-entering the country, a decade from our family and friends, and from our life and home in America.
It’s been over 18 years since we first arrived in the United States. When we first got off the plane, we were excited to see Hollywood, eat Big Macs, and ride cable cars (I still have yet to ride on a cable car, actually). But it’s been 18 years since we thought of America as a foreign place, since we were tourists since we were blind to the socioeconomic woes that plague this country.
Our country. My brother and I, like all the other members of my family, are emotionally invested to America. This is where my siblings and my mom’s children grew up. My brother, sister, and I went to American schools, we share American values, we speak the American language, and we embrace the American culture. We still believe that, through hard work and perseverance, anyone can achieve their dream. But it’s been hard.
I stuff up my thoughts and head off to class. It’s 4:00 PM.
On my laptop, I load up today’s lecture. I had the chance to read ahead, so I’m only half-listening to the professor. While she goes over templates and Thursday’s upcoming midterm, I keep on trying to work on this post.
Unfortunately, I’m a slow writer. It takes me a long time to jot down a sentence, and ages more to finish a written assignment. I have a hard time finishing lab reports and papers, so I often give up some hours of sleep to get these assignments done. At least, this week, I can still pull out some time to share my story. At least, I can find some optimism in this otherwise dreadful semester.
My family is struggling. My mom no longer sews for a living, because her joint pains make it difficult for her to work. My brother has a hard time finding work, and is limited to odd jobs at restaurants and bars through referral by friends. My sister, an accountant, was recently laid off. To make ends meet, we rent out parts of our house. I try to do my part by tutoring a few hours a week – it’s not much, but it pays for food. With the fee increases for colleges, my mom had to take out equity on our home to fund my education.
Every day, I’m struggling to keep my morale up. The stress and uncertainty is stifling, and it’s been hard for me to relax and breathe. I’m scared that I’m going to fail, that I’m going to crash and burn before this semester is up. I’m worried that I’ll repeat what happened two semesters ago, when the daily barrage of negative self-talk and inability to meet deadlines on my assignments drove me into a spiraling depression and got me disqualified from my program. I’m scared that I, age 23, with no work experience in my field of study, will amount to nothing when I’m out of college.
I’m working hard, trying to excel in my classes and comprehend the material, trying to prove that I’m worth educating and worth society’s efforts to fund my attendance in these classes. I’m working hard trying to live up to my family’s expectations and sacrifices, and trying to prove to the university that I’m going to be an excellent engineer and worth readmitting back into the college.
But all the while, I’m questioning my ability, and doubting my worth. And all the while, I long to get back into the covers, and bury my thoughts in sleep.
I get back to my place, and try to finish my blog. I didn’t expect to sleep tonight, but I pass out anyway.
It’s 2:00 AM, Wednesday.