In Search of Home(s), Oldies but Goodies
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Migratory silences

September 1, 2014, Acadia National Park

“I feel like we have done this before.”

We are at a campsite at the very edge of the woods near Acadia National Park on what feels like the last weekend of summer. He loves it, the privacy, the vastness. I wish I had googled “bears at Acadia National Park?!” before I lost reception.

We are wearing all the clothes we brought on top of themselves, sweater above sweater, shorts above jeans above leggings. He makes a comment about how “tight European pants” are no good for layering when it’s 38 degrees at night on what should have been the last weekend of summer, but we both know he hates those pants in the city too — at all seasons. He is making me my first ever s’more.

I am watching for bears.We both forget I didn’t grow up here sometimes. He insists I must have eaten a s’more before. We are now at the deep end of splitting hairs: “a marshmallow yes; a s’more per se? No!”

“What about at camp? Not even at camp?”
“No. I stuck to marshmallows there too. I had my first marshmallow at camp.”

I still watch for bears, and I stare into the distance with the kind of intensity that might fool you into thinking I actually know what I’m watching for.” I feel like we have done this before,” Elijah says.

We have, in fact. It is our anniversary and anniversaries are built on repetitive memory — on being able to say “we have done this before.” We have worn all our clothes before, regretting it when we wake up and everything we brought smells like fire smoke and tent floor. I have ruined whole nights of what could have been camping sleep before, watching for bears or other monsters in the night. But the ‘this’ on the night ofmyfirsts’more was memory-making in the faceofliminality.

***

Thessaloniki, somewhere between the ages of 5 and 6 or 6 and 7 – or whenever you learn to multiply

My father was a big believer in repetition. “Repetition is the mother of learning,” as the Greek proverb would have it. When I returned to my home in Greece earlier this year, I was confronted with the relics of that early childhood repetitive learning. In the attic that holds our Christmas decorations and old suitcases, I found my elementary school notebooks (because we are all apparently repetitive sentimentalists). Multiplication tables brought back memories of lunches that would go on forever, prompted by my father’s single word: “Again!” And there we were, pushing soggy fries around the plate, until he could be convinced that I knew the value of 7 times 9.

Sometimes, when I count in my head, I still do it in his voice.

Over twenty years later, a friend insists life keeps giving you the same lesson until you learn it. By her Buddhist tenet, I must be a bad learner. One round of surprise grief, then another, then the reverberating waves of loss. One round of injury, then another, echoing with fragility.  Ten migratory years, punctuated by applications, waits, passports-in-the-mail and days of hoping against hope that they will return intact. Cast in this light, when you stare at your childhood multiplication notebook, you ask what the lesson is. You ask how to signal to the world that you have learned it, how to raise your hand and say you are ready to move on.

***

Athens, Greece, what feels like every second summer 

I did not use to be this sweaty.

The country is clad in denim shorts. When I walk through a protest to get to my embassy appointment — a commute rife with the irony and incongruousness of my worlds – I get catcalled by the riot police. I keep walking and hear them whistling behind me.

“Κοπελιά! Εσύ, με τη γκρίζα φούστα!”

“Leave her, she’s not from here,” says one riot policeman to the other.

There is a repetition to my migratory routines, and it is unperturbed by grief and recession alike. Every few Julies, I line up outside the embassy in Athens, ready for my visa appointment. The protests are the same. The riot policemen. The street harassment. The denim shorts. The tears of relief outside the embassy, and the embarrassment at my telenovela-esque display of relief in the next breath. Only the sweat is new.

***

Our Boston attic, August 2014

My passport with its brand new visa sits on my desk. My work permit, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen. The details are not essential to this story and they are the kinds of details that begin to fade into the background once the relief of resolution sets in, but the repetitiveness of the routine of migratory uncertainty doesn’t evaporate quite as easily.

You track your application online. Read the message that your application is “under review.” Read it every day, even though it was the same yesterday. Tomorrow, you will read it again, and you will start to notice the words. Was that word there yesterday? It did not feel quite so weighty then. What might it mean?

You catch yourself. You acknowledge your own repetitions. Once you have your 12-digit application number memorized from logging in to the site ritualistically, Elijah takes you camping. You pretend to read other things in between the ‘Under Review’ messages, but none of them quite register.

This will have been the first August when you do not remember a single book you read.

***

September 2014, somewhere between a porch, a terrace, and a wine glass

One day the words on the screen change to “request for further evidence in support of your case.” The screen does not, however, clarify what the requested evidence is, stating instead that a letter is on the way.

This marks a rupture in the routine. You wait. Staring at the postman becomes part of your sequence. You joke that this is how people must have felt in Victorian England or in a Marquez novel when they were waiting for their lover’s letter to arrive, but that’s just part of how you tell the story. It is part of the narrative that keeps you from unraveling.

There are moments of presence in between, but you can’t shake the consciousness that they are, indeed, moments-in-between. Immigration anxiety has that effect: it suspends life in mid-air.

The moments in between are filled with the kindness of friends who cannot imagine you facing all this uncertainty without a glass (or six) of Malbec. You cannot start your new job or earn money until your work permit is in your hands. You can’t help but think that the work part of your brain, the part of you that is ready to be back in the humanitarian sector as soon as immigration lets you, would think that buying Malbec at this juncture would be a “maladaptive livelihood choice.” Your friends keep you from making it and, on an optimistic day on the cusp of fall – on the cusp of everything really – you think that maybe this is the era of wine and walks, of friends feeding you while you wait. Or rather, that this has been every era of your adult life so far, and not even the uncertainty of this particular limbo can rob you of it.

 ***

That optimism no longer comes easily. In its darkest moments, the immigration process wipes out the capacity for gratitude. It wipes out a lot, in fact: it occupies space by clearing away the nooks that used to be filled by other emotions. One of the first to be edged out is the ability to imagine the future. As Miranda Ward put it in a beautiful essay on immigration limbo in Vela, “if the decision is not in my favor, then there is a great blank space where our future used to be. All of the assumptions we’ve made about our life […] will have to shift. At the moment those assumptions are greyed out, un-clickable, just out of reach, but I can still see their frail outlines.”

Once immigration uncertainty and worry fills all compartments, it becomes a single, dominant narrative that squashes all others. It is also a narrative that is conducive to hierarchies of suffering and competitions of privilege. It is impossible to think of immigration, transitions, and uncertainty without thinking of the other migrants in line — some of whom are migrants without my privilege, facing different challenges and prospects. Again, in Ward’s words: “The freedom of choice, of mobility. You have to be in a pretty privileged position even to be able to consider it an option. This uncomfortable period of powerlessness is actually a direct result of my privilege.”

When one places Ward in conversation with Roxane Gay in the recently-released Bad Feminist, the spotlight shifts to the uncomfortable balance between expansive compassion for those facing uncertainty with even less privilege and acknowledgment of how privilege can ebb and flow in the same moment in one’s life. Gay writes (emphasis mine):

“In online discourse, in particular, the specter of privilege is always looming darkly. When someone writes from experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege. How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or the lack thereof? We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege.”

***

There is an ‘untellability’ to some stories and the veil of silence against which Roxane Gay cautions permeates narratives of immigration. In the beginning, when your whole life is under scrutiny, the very consciousness of that process propels you into silence. You do not want to look like you are complaining or criticizing, like you are ungrateful or blind to privilege. You are caught between patience and impatience, between wanting to meet yourself where you are and wanting deeply to be the kind of person who can go through this process without holding her breath till she turns blue in the face.

Soon enough, repetition sets in: the 12-digit code, the same message on the screen, the same anticipation for the time the mail comes. Everything is measured and you are on the wrong side of the measurement. “Please do not contact us before 60 days have elapsed.” “You will hear within 3 months.” There is a choreography to these prescriptions and it is so uniform that it is at once soothing and infuriating. On some days, you tell your friends that you just want to talk to a human on the other end of the line who can yank you out of your static place and press play on your paused life. But even that, the talking to a human, has to wait — until you have received your letter… or until thirty days have passed since the day it was mailed.

“We have done this before,” Elijah says, and he is right. The ‘this’ is the yanking — the yanking ourselves out of uncertainty, out of the anxious unknowing place, to go camping of all things.

Camping! Camping feels like a defiant act, “considering everything,” and just like that, you watch your definition of defiance shift a little.
Look at me, I’m eating my first s’more.
No mail, no cell reception, no bears (he swears).
The only way to yank yourself out of stasis, as it turns out, is to keep making memories, even when uncertainty narrows the bandwidth of your imagination.
On most days, that’s too much to ask, but you have a hunch that you will remember this anniversary as the time you were anxious about bears, and not the time-in-between. At least that is the memory you want to will into posterity.

***

By the time your work authorization document arrives, you are so sick of living in this story that you cannot tell it again. You thought you’d want to shout this moment from the rooftops. In reality, you are simply ready to live in a different narrative. Hanif Kureishi claims “others only have the power we give them. The immigrant is a collective hallucination forged in our own minds.” Perhaps that version lives on because many of us in the middle of a process succumb to its voicelessness, and many of us who have crawled out of it are too grateful, too exhausted, too tired of the story to tell it again. And thus the silences perpetuate and multiply…

The glaring complement to this interpretation is, of course,  that the story itself is not a rewarded narrative, it is not a prized trope, it is not welcomed or celebrated or encouraged. In Judith Butler’s terms, we need to ask: “When is life grievable?” Which lives are grievable? And where do migratory lives and narratives fit within this scale?

***

In a class on fiction in college, the professor said: “Don’t tell a story unless you know why. What is your purpose in telling it?” I can file that away under tenets I am violating, apparently right under “life keeps giving you the same lesson until you learn it” and “repetition is the mother of all learning.” I do not fully know what the purpose of sharing the process of four months of uncertainty and immigration-fueled anxiety is. Yet, I do know that I cannot tell the next story until I tell this one — and I am ready to tell the next story, so I must tell this one. Call it a clearing of space, an attempt to be honest about the moments-in-between. Obscuring them would feel like an act of insincerity.

I do not know what the lesson is, or even that there is one. The abundance of lessons makes the experience read almost like a horoscope, in that you can pick and choose which vague outline of a lesson most fits the prescription you want to take away. Friends have joked that perhaps the lesson is that I should stay put somewhere – anywhere at this point! – and not put myself through the uncertainty of transitions through which I can preserve very little agency. Others have suggested that perhaps the lesson is to sit less clumsily through the agency-less times, to fidget less through the uncertain waters, to embrace the powerlessness. There are also lessons about love and care in the face of uncertainty, about making memories, about exhaling a little, even if you know that what will come out may not be a full breath. The lessons I keep coming back to, however, are questions: How do we make immigration a kinder process? How do we design a policy and process that takes people’s lives and livelihoods into account and treats them with dignity? How do we make the story more tellable and the lives more grievable?

And, selfishly, how do we move our own personal story along, signaling that we get ‘it’, that the lesson has been learned, that repetition is indeed the mother of all learning? How do we avoid another round of repetition? And if that is our goal… have we learned anything at all?

4 Comments

  1. RoxanneGalpin says

    The immigration process is a daunting one to say the least. My brief experience immigrating to another country left me feeling without agency, and indeed, it became the dominating narrative in my life. I felt, really, like I’d jumped out of a plane without a parachute. I read Hanif Kareishi’s article in The Guardian. I love the comparison he drew between the faceless immigrant and the proverbial video game zombie.

  2. Bespoke Traveler says

    Perhaps the lesson is to keep making memories which can be shared? If being in a state of limbo leaves us helpless and confused, then surely knowing others have gone through the same experience helps lighten that grief and confusion. Reading of your troubles I am reminded of the plight of Mehran Nasseri who was stuck inside Charles de Gaulle airport for 18 years.

  3. I enjoy reading your writing so much–though I know, that this was about a difficult, trying time for you. Due to my dual citizenship (and two valid passports) I must say I’ve had an easier time, but your experience brought to mind what some of my friends had to and still go through. I’m happy it worked out in the end for you, though I agree with you and ask the same questions you did at the end.

    • Thank you so much for the kind words. I am grateful and relieved, too, but I wonder if there is a way to translate that long period of uncertainty and anxiety into more concrete action for those still facing daunting immigration processes.

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