Elea currently lives in Portland, OR with her husband, two cats, and a dog. You can say hi on Twitter.
An All-American Immigrant
Growing up in California, whenever I referenced “Americans”, my mother would always interject with the reminder: “You’re not one of them.”
I came home with A’s and prepared for college. “It’s not enough to be good. You have to be better. They won’t sponsor you or give you a work visa unless you’re better,” she cautioned.
The best chance I had at staying within the country was supposedly within nursing, accounting, or engineering. Boom or bust, we’d always need those workers. The Internet was new, who could say whether or not it was a stable industry? And besides, I was completely self-taught, and making websites as a hobby didn’t necessarily equal professional qualifications.
Three years into college, I decided to stop torturing myself with accounting and take the leap into web design. There was no equivalent major at my local state college, but I couldn’t afford to go to more prestigious universities, as I would then have to pay even higher out-of-state fees, and foreign students weren’t eligible for loans or most scholarships. I chose the closest thing available: Management Information Systems. Months later, I landed an internship as a hybrid web designer/front-end developer at Sun Microsystems. To my surprise and delight, I was excellent at the job.
Unfortunately, my graduation fell in the midst of a recession and most companies stopped the interview process once when they realized that I would require work sponsorship. I got a contract gig and kept searching. Finally, one startup was willing to take me on. The offer was well below market, even for an entry-level position. I only had two months left on my F-1B visa. I took it.
Many years later, I'm sitting in the waiting room of the local USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) office. A woman comes out and calls, "Wee...Shun?" Knowing she means me, I get up to follow her into the office.
The lady flips through my naturalization application and quizzes me on US history. She has to double-check when I tell her the full name of our current vice president ("No one's ever given me his entire name before!") and asks questions about my work and international trips. She closes my very thick file and says, "I'm recommending your case for approval. You should be able to come back for your naturalization ceremony this afternoon."
I am excited, but it doesn’t feel real yet. Most people have to wait months between the interview and taking the Oath of Allegiance; I get to become a citizen within the same day. I show up hours later and feel severely underdressed, sporting only a simple blouse, pants, and boots, while everyone else is in formal wear, with dress shoes to cap it off. At the ceremony, they ask us to sing the national anthem. When we get to the high note in "the rocket's red glare", there's an awkward moment as I'm the only one still singing.
Before I know it, the ceremony goes by, everyone takes photos, and I’m sitting in the car with my husband, staring at my Certificate of Naturalization. I sign into Slack to share the news of my naturalization with coworkers.
Amidst the wave of congratulations, reality begins sinking in. I'm overcome with a giant sense of relief. At last, I am officially an American.