NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: On July 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ruled to terminate F1 visas for international students if their colleges and universities were going to go online and could not offer them an in-person course load. Pushback from Harvard, MIT, and many other universities succeeded in rescinding this order; however, their ruling only applies to students who have already begun their degree programs. Newly enrolled students whose institutions cannot offer them an in-person course load will not be allowed entry to the US. HIB temporary workers and green card holders or permanent residents have also had their applications suspended forcing many to leave the country in the middle of a pandemic. Their predicament really resonates with professional immigrants from my generation who first came to the U.S. as students in the eighties. The trajectory from “foreign” student to U.S. citizen is not an easy one, and this piece seeks to make visible the love, loss, and longing that goes into the creation of a successful immigrant life. To that end, the letters present a continuum between the present and our country’s immigrant past. I hope that they will evoke empathy in their readers. COVID-19 breaks up families as fear of the virus imposes travel restrictions and separates loved ones; to that end it has made everyone an immigrant. Like Indian activist and author Arundhati Roy, I hope that it might also be a portal into a more compassionate and loving world.
Your letter arrived today
But I was late for class
So I grabbed it and ran
To Dr. Greene’s modern british literature class
I read it right under his nose
I couldn’t wait
But he was kind
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes and asked me how long a letter from India takes
When I told him ten to fifteen days
He looked away and softly said, “Oh, that’s too long, that’s too long…”
All three of your letters came today
When I told my friends my mother writes to me three times a week
They don’t believe me
But I think they are secretly jealous
So much to talk about
I will call you tomorrow
When I called you last night I forgot to tell you
There was a mother and daughter from Germany
In the arrival line in front of me in Chicago
I almost cried when I saw them
They reminded me so much of you and me
They were very nice to me
But they could speak no English at all
Ma, it must be so hard for them
But at least they have each other…
I know, I know. You never wanted me to come to this country.
I insisted. But maybe you were right.
But the professors are great
And the students are nice
And I love my work…
Still I’m saving all my pay to buy a round trip ticket home in the summer
So I can be with you all again
The only thing I’m not looking forward to
Is going to Chennai and having to wait in that cue from 2 am in the morning
Just for the interview to get my visa renewed
And I have to do this
Year after year after year…
Each time I fly away
I say goodbye to the two people I love most
In the whole world
I waved and waved and waved at you and Baba
Till you both turned into little dots on the horizon
You keep saying how proud you are of me
But I sometimes wonder
If having a career is worth all the pain it brings to us
My prelims are looming
And I am so scared
Everyone here says this is what makes or breaks you
If you fail you only get one second chance at passing
I wish you were here with me
Like when you flew to Calcutta for my BA finals
I passed! I’m ABD: All But Dissertation!
Aren’t you proud of me now?
I’m coming home this year to celebrate with you and the family!
The only thing is as a foreign student
I can’t do any work outside of my teaching assistantship
But I have found work in the summer
Shelving books in the library and cleaning dishes in the cafeteria
No, you MUST NOT send the $100 – you and Baba saved
Even if the government allows it
You may need it some time.
We will all go out and celebrate when I’m home.
Being ABD is nice but I still have to form a committee
And write a three hundred page thesis
I want to write on Indian writers.
What do you think of Amitav Ghosh?
I got it done!!!
I finished the thesis, and passed the interview and got the job!
They even said that they would sponsor my green card!
Then I can sponsor you and Baba!
Oh, I know you will never leave your boys
Even for me
But I did it all on my own!
Aren’t you proud of me now???
No, I didn’t go to graduation.
It cost too much.
And besides it’s only fun if you have family here.
And I know you and Baba can’t afford to come anyway.
And bhai’s health is such a worry.
You can’t leave him alone ...
The green card process takes so long
They have to prove that you aren’t taking away a job
From a US citizen or a green card holder
And there were more than three hundred candidates for my job
And some must have been really good
No wonder no one wants to employ us
No wonder my friends all went in for green card marriages
Trust me to do it the hard way :)
It’s been two years since I saw you last
My students are nice, my colleagues are nice…
But I still can’t leave the country
Nilesh says he will marry me
If that will speed up the process
But since we already started the other way
This will only muddy the water and make things worse
Besides I love him so much
I don’t want him to ever accuse me of marrying him
For my green card
It’s been three years now and still no green card
I worry so much about your dizzy spells
Baba says you almost fell down one time
Every time the phone rings at night
I worry that something has gone wrong with you or Baba
Did I tell you when Brijesh’s father died
He couldn’t go back for the funeral…
My lawyer says I can come home for thirty days
I have to apply for something called “advance parole”
Can you believe it?
I feel like such a criminal
I even had to go back to Chicago for the HIV tests
The immigration testing center was so seedy
I didn’t want to let you and Baba know
Because I remember how upset you were
When Mala’s aunt wanted to take me for a pap smear
But I’ve already applied for my advance parole
And then I can be with you for thirty whole days!
And we can celebrate and celebrate and celebrate!
I should never have come to see you
I should never have dragged you out that night
You were so tired. You only went for me.
And then you tripped and fell
And hit your head so badly
Even as I write this letter
You are still in a coma
My lawyer told me that if I didn’t come back to the US
Within the thirty day limit
They wouldn’t let me back in
So I left you and came
Did I do right?
Are you proud of me now?
You came out of the coma
Baba said you kept asking and asking for me
And I wasn’t with you
I thank God every day you are still alive
My lawyer says it’s legal for me to come back after a month
To see you again
But I can’t stay for longer than thirty days
Can you believe the green card still isn’t here?
How long has it been now?
Four…five years…I’ve lost count.
Why did you cry when I got married?
I know it was a short visit
But Nilesh is a nice boy
You even said so yourself
And his parents are from India
You said I will never come back
Now that I have married an American
But I’ll take a leave of absence from my job
And stay with you
Just as soon as my green card comes
I can’t send this letter to you
The green card came
But not before your dementia set in
They say it was brought on by the TBI
From your fall
Now you can no longer read or write to me
But my green card lets me come and stay with you
Whenever my job permits
And we sing together and tell stories
And then you rest your head on my chest
And whisper, “take me to bed, baby”
“I’m tired; take me to bed”
You died today.
And I wasn’t by your side.
I was teaching a class of students
When I got the news
It was hard to leave you that winter
Watching Baba feed you with a dropper
I promised I’d be back in the summer
But you left us all in Easter ...
It’s six years since you passed away.
Baba died the year after you.
The pain of losing you killed him too.
Sometimes I wish I could have followed suit.
Aisha turned five today
She has Nilesh’s big brown eyes and curly lashes
People say she looks like me
But I think she looks like you
This is not the America I came to
When people asked where I was from
I would say India
But I had to give up Indian citizenship
To become an American passport holder
But people don’t believe me when I say America
They say, “no where are you really from?”
The last time we came back from India
They interrogated Nilesh for the longest time
Even though he is born and brought up here
After 9/11 the mood was so ugly
I used to fear for our safety
And now it’s ten times worse
Today Aisha came home in tears
She wouldn’t say what was wrong
But Pankaj’s mother called me to say
Some kids spat at them
And told them to go back where they came from
What do I tell her, Ma?
I became an American
But she was born and brought up here
People are scared they will stop renewing the passports
Of US immigrant citizens
If this happens to us
Where will go?
We are not Indians any more.
Was this your fear
When you let your only girl child go?
You always said
People are nice
But in the end
They will always stick to their own kind
Would it have been better
If I had stayed behind
And never left so long ago?
We will never know …
But, dearest Ma
I miss you so.
Asha Sen is an English professor at UW-Eau Claire and a long-term resident of the Chippewa Valley. She is a big fan of books and movies and a strong believer in the power of words to make social change.