Foreign, Or 101 | On Visas
Updated: Feb 17
I have a theory that English-speaking immigrants in New York City talk about visas just how 18-year-old girls talk about the contraceptive pill. “Which one are you on?” “How long for?” “Will you switch?” “What are the side effects?”
By side effects I mean the caveats, the ‘buts’ that are wedded to each visa. None are perfect and all have their cost to benefit ratios. Stay for five years handcuffed to your employer. Or stay for a lifetime for the cost of a vital organ. It’s not your choice.
We talk about visas so much for reasons that are shallow and deep. Primarily they are a great topic of small talk: when you run into someone living in America who is not American you share that experience of painful bureaucracy, a bond that will smooth over the rutted first hour of conversation with a stranger. A rare encounter with an O1, an alien of extraordinary ability, makes for wide eyes and low whistles; a J1, the pitying ask of the terminally ill: “how long do you have left?”
As much as it labels you for the easy digestion of others, a visa also defines who you are as an immigrant to yourself. It turns you from what you see yourself as (no doubt a cosmopolitan, slightly tortured expat in search of love, money, adventure and self-actualization) into what you really are: a student, a seasonal worker, an anonymous intracompany transfer that will blur frighteningly quickly into the fabric of corporate America.
Like the Pill, you never know which you’re best suited to until a professional tells you. Only then will it become both an inextricable part of your identity and the bane of your life.
Because when we talk about visas, we talk about class. The club of British immigrants running through the streets of New York is one of the self-satisfied. It’s a dull, constant moan about the price of rent, the subway, the heat, the snow, but dancing underneath is the knowledge that we are the ones that made it.
We of little responsibility and substantial wealth turned off the TV and made those scenes our own. We look with sympathy upon those who save their Swindon salaries all year round to wander dazed and bemused down Fifth Avenue for just a week.
They’ll never know what it’s really like, we think. They’ll never know what it’s like to be this alive, when what we really mean is, they’ll never know what it’s like to be this rich.
When we travel, we travel with passports that are stamped and battered, but not as much as we’d like them to be. When we land in America, we take them out and open them to the right page and stand, waiting, flashing the visa page to all those who wait behind.
We want this performance to say, look how burdensome it is to be so traveled. We mean it to say, we are special. At the border, the guard is a doorman to us. To you, clutching your Esta documents and wiping the sweat off your four fingers and thumb, he is a bouncer.
But the door does close eventually. It could be tomorrow, when we become too expensive or insufferable to keep. It could be in five years when we realize the concept of home never followed us here like we thought it might. Eventually the suitcase is zipped, the cab is hailed, and another passport is stashed in a drawer.
That club that ran through the streets of New York goes on to run another country, never quite understanding we once reached America without climbing over any walls or into any boxes.
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