Marek Piwnicki

An Immigrant. An Enigma.

9 minutes

I was a typical American girl, craving a bite at the big apple, a picture-perfect life, the American dream. However, I was actually just a young girl, festering in the insecurities and struggles that come with being an immigrant. While the world is slowly becoming privy to the dilemmas of illegal immigration, not many people understand that the pathway to citizenship as a legal immigrant is just as tumultuous. Being an immigrant is a curse.

An Immigrant. An Enigma.
Marek Piwnicki

Of course, I was aware of my immigrant “condition” early on. My parents came to the U.S. from India when I was eight. I went from being a privileged child, who rode in fancy cars, studied at an elite school, had wonderful friends, and easily got everything she wanted, to being a confused and apprehensive child helping her mother carry groceries on buses and babysitting my younger siblings in a one-bedroom apartment. I’ll take this opportunity to let you know that my siblings were born in the U.S.

Sofia Sforza
Sofia Sforza

What started as a promise for a better future and endless trips to Disneyland, quickly turned into a nightmare. My mother, who already had a master’s degree in Political Science from one of the best universities in Delhi, had to go back to school, just to maintain her legal status. She braved through as an international student to get her teaching credential while I struggled at a new school as an outcast, the weird “curry-eating” girl with a funny accent. I was scrutinized and bullied. While others my age were building their identity, I had already lost mine.

Endless lunches and recesses were spent hiding in the bathroom or wandering around wondering what was wrong with me. Each minute felt like punishment. The isolation wore me down. At home, I would see my mother struggling to make ends meet and applying for job after job, hoping someone would sponsor her H1B working visa (one of the few pathways to permanent residency).

By the time my parents’ lives became stable, mine started to crumble. My mother became a special education teacher since this career allowed sponsorship. But I never obtained any form of permanent citizenship. My parents did try. But they eventually realized that they had, unintentionally, put me in a never-ending loop of problems. I could be on an H4 dependent visa until twenty-one. I could legally live with my parents and go to school. But I would never be able to work without sponsorship, or qualify for healthcare (that wasn’t private and expensive), or receive financial aid, or vote. I would always be deprived of the rights and privileges my friends and siblings took for granted.

I want to say that I at least had a great childhood, but that wasn’t the case. Because of the bullying, I became socially anxious, desperate to assimilate. The cost of fitting in was high. As a determined and culturally conservative man, my father sought to raise his children in the Indian traditions I intended to cut off. He valued hard work, perfect grades, obedience, and sucking opportunity out of every situation. He detested anything that might turn my siblings and me into spoiled little Americans. It would be school, sports, and studying. Lazy, pampered children had time for fun, not his kids.  

I wanted to go to the movies, have sleepovers, take trips, visit afterschool hangouts, attend school dances, and the like. To my father, that meant I didn’t care about my privilege of being in America. If I went to the best schools, had the best grades and outstanding extracurriculars, then maybe, just maybe, I would end up a citizen. Perfection and obedience were important, not happiness. He saw me as that spoiled child, the black sheet of the family. But I was just a sad girl, whose every desire came second to her visa status. 

At sixteen, things really hit the fan. For the first time, I felt the full-face impact of my visa restrictions. Because of my father, I had been a competitive swimmer for many years and excitedly got my lifeguarding certification alongside my friends. I was fully qualified for this coming-of-age job and eagerly applied. But since the position could not be sponsored, according to immigration laws, I was rejected. This crushed me.  

I made it my mission to fix this myself. If I do it my way and give it my all, surely I could grasp the American dream. I tested out of high school after my sophomore year, started community college, got my Associate’s degree, and then transferred to a university at eighteen. This path seemed like an ideal opportunity to stand out on college applications while saving my parents tons of money. International students have to pay much more to attend college. Ultimately, it worked out, but not without sacrificing the rest of my childhood. I lost friends, missed prom and graduation, and didn’t create the memories people grow to cherish.

Those losses got me into the University of California, Berkeley and one step closer to the independence and success I had always envisioned. I kept compromising with life to have the same options and privileges as others. My struggles helped me become a determined young woman, but they also deprived me of emotional development, which tore away at my mental health.

UC Berkeley was an extremely rewarding and eye-opening experience. I got to spread my eager wings and soak up some independence, adventures, and excitement. I found a small sense of self, no longer just an enigma. Confident, resilient, with much to offer, I’d almost forgotten my immigration woes. But they came creeping back during my senior year. As I watched my peers attend recruiting fairs and secure jobs, that anxiety kicked in. At twenty years old, on a dependent visa, job prospects evaded me. It turns out that hard work didn’t secure my life. I was just as naïve as my father had been.  

Panic-stricken and overwhelmed, I didn’t know how to proceed, so I jumped on the law school bandwagon. Surely, that would be the solution. Deep inside, I really wanted an entry-level job and some real-life experience, but I had no other option than to hurl myself towards law school. After graduation, I had my first anxiety attack. I remember sitting in my ex-boyfriend’s precious Cadillac and feeling a rush of frustration and sadness. I’ll spare you the details, but it sure wasn’t pretty. Needless to say, that relationship did not last. I dusted myself off and suppressed the incident, because, as usual, I had bigger fish to fry.

I moved to the big apple with my big dreams. New York City quickly became my favorite place in the whole world. I relished being on my own but was still financially dependent on my parents. My friends were making ends meet, making their own choices, building their credit scores and lives. I had worked just as hard but couldn’t even make a quick buck. By the time I started law school, I was dancing on a thin wire with my mental health.

Law school was perhaps the single biggest disappointment ever. I hated it. What was going to lead to my new and improved life, my shot at a sponsorable job, a chance to be a normal professional in America backfired completely. Law school was a full circle right back to the hell I thought I had escaped years ago. Once again, somehow, I found myself bullied and ostracized. The reason? As a student senator, I had helped address an issue that was brought to my attention instead of minding my own business. The very same people who elected me refused to get involved, so I became the scapegoat. Perhaps, I should have just let them handle their own problems. But isn’t the point of law school to advocate for those less able to do so? And isn’t American law all about due process and bringing injustice to light?

After my second year, I decided that law school was not for me, at least not now. For the first time ever, I chose my well-being over my visa, knowing full well what the consequence would be. This single decision became a catalyst for the revocation of my visa. I would have to return to India, a country I did not remotely remember and had not called home for fifteen years. My parents and siblings stayed behind because the U.S. is their home. For me, the worst had finally come to pass.

Despite the culture shock, I embraced India as an opportunity to reflect, grow, and find a more suitable career path. As a citizen, I have been able to capitalize on opportunities, which were inaccessible to me in the U.S. Moreover, the return I fought against my entire life has been a testament to my strength and resilience. It has been over two years since I left the U.S., and I do not identify as an American or an Indian. That’s what being an immigrant does. It’s a curse: it uproots people, changes their dynamics, and transplants them into places where they might not necessarily belong or thrive. It’s a gamble, full of uncertainty, doubt, and horrible stumbling blocks, set in place to deter and exploit people, all in the name of a bigger, better, brighter future. Immigration is a constant state of chaos that most people can’t even begin to understand. It is separation and isolation, a search for a forever home, sometimes in vain.

I may not have a definite path, but at least I am no longer shackled. Alexander Den Heijer once proclaimed, “If a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t change the flower, you change the environment.” Instead of trying to fit in where, perhaps, I wasn’t meant to be, I can pick a new dream. And there is something liberating about that. I will no longer strive to meet the expectations of others. I’m done with futile compromises. Life isn’t fair. I was naive to think it would be. But it has taught me to put my mental health first, to capitalize on opportunities as they come, and to adjust the sails whenever needed. I can’t wait to find out who I am meant to be. The picture is becoming clearer. I am more than an immigrant. I am more than an enigma.

An Immigrant. An Enigma.