A woman in all black looking down toward the floor

The term “second-class citizen” seems to be a popular term amongst Americans. The first time I heard it was from a bandana-wearing, humanitarian-type on a TV show, in heated response to a bigoted comment.

She said, “I’m sick of being treated like a second-class citizen!”

It certainly sounded dramatic, but I never really knew what it meant. All it confirmed was that in America, class matters a great deal. I suppose the only reason I couldn’t relate was because I wasn’t a citizen. 

If you’re a second-class citizen, then you’re getting the short-end of the stick, but you have a stick to chew on. As an Asian woman, I, too, could cry for injustice. Instead, I sit quietly, obey the law and stay out of trouble. I find jobs that can legally hire me or sponsor my visa.

I keep all my documents folded in my passport case so I won’t have to scramble through them in the immigration line. I research graduate programs based on their location and immigration policies. I fill out forms and wait for letters, and I wonder what it might feel like to legally belong to the place I call home.

I wonder what it might feel like to legally belong to the place I call home.

It’s a question I like to call my invisible best friend. Unacquainted with any of my real friends, he lingers. He pokes at my shoulder any time I think, “Hey, you never know. Maybe this place could be the one.” 

“Think again,” he says. “In a year, you might be out of here.” 

I have not spent more than two months in South Korea, the country where I was born, since the age of 7. I have lived in three more countries since: first Canada, then a brief period in the United Arab Emirates, then back to Canada and now America.

Home is a tricky word. Is it where I was born? Is it where I’ve spent the most time growing up? Is it where I speak the language and understand the culture, even if I have no family living there?

It feels almost as bad to pick any of these categories and to define my home as to say I have none. In my search for home, I’ve had to abandon the common notions about what home means. 

I’ve had to abandon the common notions about what home means. 

I have a friend who’s spent most of his life on a green card in the United States. Last summer, he obtained his citizenship. Another friend has been working with an immigration lawyer for years to maintain her status as a long-term F-1 student. Until she’s legally processed her status, she cannot leave the country. She hasn’t called her passport country home since she was 3, but it’s where she might end up after college if all else fails.

She is still fighting, but in her heart, she is also preparing for the worst. We all have to be prepared. You never know when the landlord might cut your lease short. 

As a non-citizen member of the middle class, I’ve had my share of advantages. It was my class that allowed me to study overseas in the first place. There’s a joke that all international students are unabashedly rich. It’s not always true, but for the most part, the logic is that you have to have a certain level of income to even be an international student.

We have higher tuition because schools know we can pay them. We can’t work off campus. We travel further to fly home every break. We pay exchange rates every time our parents send us money. To even be along the same line as our domestic peers, we’re playing catch-up.

I was one of the lucky ones, some might say. I learned English. I went to school in a first-world country. I gained Western cultural insights, something I would have never had living in South Korea my whole life. My dad could afford to give me a “better life” away from home. I wonder if it was worth losing home all together along the way. 

The socioeconomic class divides strangers. The invisible system between citizens and aliens divides hearts. It has divided mine for 13 years.

The invisible system between citizens and aliens divides hearts.

August 2006 was when my life was unwittingly and unwillingly committed to being a global nomad. I have pitched tents ever since. Some day, I dream of erecting a home.

To sign a year-long lease. To finance a car more than 24 months (and actually think about keeping it). To choose a school based not on whether it can grant me a legal future but whether it’s a good program.

Those things, to me, sound like the “American Dream.” Those are the things I still dream about. 

Have you lived in different states or countries? Where do you feel most at home?

Image via Jason Barbagelott, Darling Issue No. 10

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