About a year ago a friend and I were in her sister’s kitchen. She had begun reading Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid and at one point, frustrated, she exclaimed: “but how are you even travelling?” What she meant was: under which visa are you working that you can mention moving back and forth so freely between Lahore, NY, and London. We were both international students in Boston, half-way through our masters in publishing, and the majority of our conversations were about visa statuses. Our own, our friends’, and that of the people we admired. There weren’t many international students within our own program, so I was lucky to have found her to talk me through the process of being an international student, which she had done once before. We were also able to share the endless little frustrations that come with being an international student. No two stories of immigration are alike and all are complex in their own ways. The family who leaves their home country behind due to political or social reasons is different from the migration of so many young people from around the world who look to further their education, and perhaps find a fulfilling job, in a country different from the one in which they were born. All are part of the complicated puzzle that is today’s migration.
There are overall 1.21 million international students in the U.S. And this number has been steadily decreasing across the country for the past three years. The reason: a combination of the new rhetorics around immigration and their effects on the employability of international students who are looking to transition for a full-time job in the country.
From a bureaucratic perspective alone, being an international student is a tiresome and often distressing feat. Being an international student involves a never-ending amount of paperwork, self-reporting, payments, research, and explaining. There are limits to the amount and type of employment, and there is the constant knowledge that employers might pass on an applicant because they believe that dealing with visas is not worth the acquisition of talent. This on top of the more typical problems of moving to a new country like dealing with new people and performing well in a new school.
This is why it has been a sort of quest to find literature by and about international students. There is plenty of information online about the visas themselves, but it is mostly academic and informational. Well-known, foreign writers usually speak about whatever subject they have been hired to write, but it seems that explaining the details of how, on which visa, and under what processes they managed to stay in the U.S. is either not a sexy enough subject or is somehow unpalatable. Yet in my experience, other international students are hungry for media that represent the issues they are going through.
There are some books that talk about the plights of being a foreign student in the U.S. and how visas have affected the lives of people in different countries. In Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she writes about the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze. While Ifemelu builds a career in the States, Obinze encounters many different visa issues in London and the U.S. The novella Mother Tongue by Colombian writer Juan Fernando Hincapié also covers this subject. In it, Enrique, the main character, gripes about being a student abroad, about not finding a job in time for the Optional Practical Training to take effect, and of having to continue pursuing higher degrees to be able to live in the U.S.
Even in television, there has been a tiny shift towards including student migration stories. In House of Flowers, the new Mexican soap opera produced by Netflix, there is a small storyline that deals with student visas and OPT´s. Elena, one of the daughters of the family, has been studying in the U.S. and comes to visit with her American boyfriend, Dominique. As the story gets more complicated we learn that Elena and Dominique were actually planning on getting married before Elena´s OPT period runs out and she has to leave the States. Although it is just a small portion of the overall drama, seeing things like this in the T.V. is useful for explaining to friends and family visa procedures that often confuse those who have not gone through them.
In Valeria Luiselli´s Tell Me How it Ends she talks about the Central American immigration crisis and the children affected by it, but along the way she shares details of her own migration procedures. She mentions the anxiety that comes from having to wait for visa documents to come in the mail and about the ontological discomfort of being legally called an “alien” in legal jargon. Reading her honest grievances with something that so many international students have to go through is refreshing.
At the end of the day, it is understandable that speaking or writing about visas is not so attractive–the details are numerous and often puzzling–but for the thousands of students who are living these processes in the United States, representation of them is welcome and necessary to make more approachable what is a very anxious time.
*Image about detail from the cover of Discontent and Its Civilizations.