Broke, Uninsured, and Unstable: An international student faces deportation after graduation

By Seola Lee

I am writing this sitting on my bed in my hot, stuffy studio apartment, with no air conditioner and a small fan operating at maximum speed. Leaving my windows open to let in some air, I sometimes hear the Indian toddler who lives next door giggling at the front stairs. Many residents in this building are immigrants, due to comparatively cheap rent and no limit in capacity per unit. I often say hello to an old European-looking man in the lobby, nursing his 3-month-old grandson. We once had a short conversation, and the first thing he asked was, "Are you from China?" "No—" "Japan?"

I hadn't been conscious of my ethnicity or nationality before I moved to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University, which I chose because of its creative writing program. It was quite recently that the concept of diversity arose in Korea, which had been typically considered—or mistaken—as racially homogenous, and no one there doubted or questioned that I was Korean. But here, after four years of living in this country, even Uber drivers can somehow still pinpoint my foreignness, maybe because of my accent, or the hair bun on top of my head. As soon as I place my butt on their car seats they ask me where—which country—I come from. I used to hate that. Every first day in a new course had this brief moment when students introduce where they're from. While waiting for my turn and listening to all those regional names from across the U.S. that are foreign to me, I felt weird to be the only one who spoke of her hometown by the name of her country, and not the city.

I remember crying in the restroom stall after the first workshop of my first English story I wrote for class. With my self-esteem wearing down, I reached a conclusion that Hopkins accepted me merely for the sake of the department's racial diversity. What embarrassed me the most in the moment was that the comments were mostly about minor diction errors, not the story itself. I revisited writing guides and handbooks, but my problem was that I had limited experience with formulating different expressions within the grammatical rules I already knew. I even used to Google every single line of my assignments in order to check whether it sounded normal in common English usage. For students struggling in writing, Hopkins promotes the Writing Center, but it doesn't provide aid for fiction or poetry. Sick of Googling for hours, which took up more than half of my writing process, I scheduled an appointment with the Center For Language Education: English as a Second Language.

I had never visited the center, because I'd been slightly offended by its program brochure on the wall about a summer course called "Accent Reduction." It said, "This course is designed to help non-native American English speakers tackle American English language," and for me this "American English" still remains a myth after hearing so many different accents, including Baltimore's, that are indigenous to this country. On my first and only visit, the tutor introduced herself, enunciating every syllable slowly and clearly, as she made sure that she was correctly pronouncing my name. I brought her a five-page story about a teenager and her pet fish, and asked if she could quickly skim through it and check whether there were any off-sounding phrases. "Of course, I'd love to," she said. She picked up her pen and read out loud the first sentence, circling the subject and the verb—"So you see, they're both singular—you got the subject-verb agreement right, great job." After that 30-minute session, I didn't schedule another.

To avoid participating in discussions I would sit quietly through workshops, using the common Asian stereotype about being shy to my advantage, even if it was only sort of true. I couldn't contribute much anyhow, as I often missed what was being discussed. When a professor opened up a class with some famous talk on the radio last night or American reality shows, I would simply zone out and keep doodling. Many contemporary stories on the reading list or my friends' works portrayed white suburban life crises, summer camping sites, or American high school kids getting high on drugs, while I was from a country where marijuana-smoking celebs make headlines and are sometimes banned from public appearances for at least a year when caught. I loved reading them, all their foreignness, exoticness, all the glimpse of lives I hadn't lived, and the universal sentiment running through them in spite of my background—but they weren't mine, they weren't what I could or wanted to write about.

During my first two semesters, I tried creating American stories for my American classes. I named my characters Susan or Walter and imitated American conversations, ate American food at American cafeterias, hung out with American people, read American books in American trains. I kept the details outside the basic plot to a minimum, as I literally didn't know what American stuff to fill in. I could write about "Korean" stuff, but at first I was reluctant. I once tried to translate my own Korean poem, an unsuccessful attempt that ended up with verbose footnotes, each explaining the Korea-specific cultural cues, most of which were untranslatable. The poem revolved around the word "Gulbi," a common dish in Korean cuisine, translated as "dried yellow corvina," and these two supposedly synonymic words felt completely disparate, failing to preserve all the intentions, social background, and history behind the original. In the linguistic disparity, the languages often lost their innate flavor and texture, even with their meanings intact. Despite this "language barrier," I wanted to also remain an English writer as I loved the language—its concise, lush vocabulary, structural clearness, and melodious vowel sounds. To me, writing had always been a process of not only transcribing, but also transliterating vague memoirs or spark-like impressions into concrete forms. My bilingually wired brain naturally facilitated the process by generating certain cracks, space, or distance between my writing self and my own thoughts, as if I were a floating island, always in between.

Yet, I had to admit that I would never become a "native" English writer, not only in language but also in contents. After failing to mimic the American voice, I decided to just switch back to what I grew up with and felt comfortable around, searching for something in my memory that could be more universally relatable and less culturally specific, or at least more easily translatable—such as my high school life with a set schedule of 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., or corporal punishment at public school which was, until recently, still legal. My adviser told me that these "exotic" stories are what American readers want, something only I can contribute to the literary market with my "unique" background. I knew it was a cool way to self-promote, but I didn't want the description "ethnic writer" on the back of my book, if ever published, as much as I wouldn't be an American one. I wanted no adjective before myself as a writer, regardless of Korean families and Korean cities and Korean memories and Korean language appearing in my works.

With graduation looming, I spent most of my time panicking in my adviser's office about getting deported. My visa was only valid as long as I remained as a student. I picked a safe, legal plan approved by Homeland Security called Optional Practical Training, which extended my visa and gave me another year to look for a job here in the field of my major. After moving out from the school dorms and into this studio, I launched my post-graduation life as the three-month grace period for unemployment counted down day by day. Starting my career as an unemployed freelance writer, I became hysterical as I must have a job, a writing job, in order to be qualified as an OPT applicant, which I would have to leave anyway after 12 months. None of the writing positions I applied for or got accepted to provided any further working visas for foreigners, as they had no experience hiring one. Meanwhile, occasional phone calls from mom in Korea—still in denial that her daughter majored in creative writing—reminded me that "poet" didn't count as a rent-paying job.

Here I would be mostly broke, uninsured, and unstable, a "legal alien allowed to work" as defined by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, but I chose to stay in Baltimore anyway. Whenever I arrived at Penn Station after a few days out of town and looked at the funny, gigantic, man/woman statue with its hearts beaming in pink and blue, I felt at home. This was the city I belonged to. I joined literary communities and readings to stay in touch with local writing folks. Soon I noticed that the racial polarization in Baltimore's "lit scene" was more apparent than in Hopkins' writing department. At the first annual LitScape last year and a monthly open mic hosted by Seltzer, people brought up this issue of the racially segregated lit scene crowded only with whites—the same concern City Paper's editorial board has.

On the other hand, when I attended Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate slam competition and Louder Than A Bomb College Slam, I couldn't spot more than a few white people, though the audience didn't concern itself too much about the white absence. One of the guys at the Seltzer's rephrased "whites" into "non-black people" after noticing my Asian face from the crowd, but still I acknowledged here my presence was uncommon. It seemed that both LitScape and Louder Than A Bomb hardly even recognized Asian (American) writers or transplanted foreign writers as literary members of their conceptual racial map. After the reading, Mike, who hosts another Baltimore reading series called Writers & Words, asked me if I would like to be one of featured writers in November. He asked if I was a "local," and after a few seconds of hesitation, I said yes.

My international-office adviser once said, in her thick, beautiful Spanish/French accent, "I shouldn't be saying this but if you want a writing job in this country—go for a Ph.D., find an American guy there, marry him, and get a citizenship. That's pretty much the only way." Or I could get a nursing degree at a local community college to join a larger hired-labor pool for foreigners. Or apply for an MFA and repeat this agony once again. Or go back home, become a high-income tutor, get married, raise kids, and never write anything else again but a grocery list. Yes, I could write anywhere, one perk of this career, but at the same time I was denied the option of "anywhere," even after spending six semesters in school and working for about a year here, in this "warm but pleasant" city, "where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite," as another five-year local F. Scott Fitzgerald said. I will, terribly, miss everyone and everything in Baltimore, even this abominable heat and humidity I'm breathing in. Sitting in my studio and overhearing strangers' chat on the patio outside Carma's, mingling with the construction noise on 33rd Street, I wish to remember everything, write about everything—over the constant drone of my floor fan, humming, humming, humming. •

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