Last night, I had dinner with a Vietnamese-American family that I recently met. On the drive home, while discussing the recent implications of COVID-19, the father asked me, “Do you regret not going back to Vietnam?”
“I think I made the best decision at the time. So no, I don’t regret it,” I responded. He nodded and offered a few words of encouragement, “you’re so brave to have left home to study abroad at such a young age.”
I quickly acknowledged, “That’s only possible as my parents had given me the opportunity.” Though I then smiled and seemingly brushed off the question, this conversation remained on my mind even after I had said my goodbye and returned to my empty, quiet apartment.
On hearing ICE’s new regulation, I looked back at my response to the father and wondered whether that was a mere joke. International students are essentially forced to choose between endangering their health and risking their education. “Do I still have the courage and determination to stand by my decision to not return home when I feel so unwelcomed here,” I contemplated.
Then I realized that for the past six years, my life has been defined by situations like this one. Studying abroad means continuously making decisions, from the trivials (what to eat tonight?) to the substantials (what classes to take next semester?) to the even larger questions (where to rent next year? how to pay for my living? what to do post-graduation?). The experience has been a chain of “two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” leading me far away from where I began.
Where I began–that is, in my native Vietnam, many people look at me with admiration. They tell their kids to work hard so that they too can study abroad. To them, being in the United States guarantees a better, more comfortable life. They would ask me for English studying tips, and scold their kids for not having the same dream and aspiration to study in a foreign country like I do.
Their hope to one day be able to send their kids to a foreign land is based upon word of mouth, on success stories of a few Vietnamese students abroad. For that reason, they and in turn, we keep getting sucked into this whirlwind of a disingenuous “American Dream” that defines success as the mastery of English and six-figure income. That “gospel truth” holds on to us, until we set foot into the United States, and faced with the naked truth that forces us to wake up to a harsh reality.
Perhaps only those of us who have studied abroad can understand that behind the rose-tinted initial impressions of independence, behind the mindset that being in a foreign country is a “luxury,” and behind the label “other people’s child” (which the Vietnamese use as a shorthand for the ideal child), there are moments of silence.
I remember feeling lost and unguided, teetering over the edge of multiple worlds and identities. I remember the days where I had to work overtime to pay off credit debt, where I had to make the 30-minute hike to CVS pharmacy even when my body was burning at 38C. I remember struggling to sleep as I had no idea where my life was headed. I remember watching the light outside the window shift from failing to blinding.
From these moments of loneliness, helplessness, and vulnerability, I realized that it had been too long since I had any sort of family interaction. From that realization, I begun to find comfort in the smallest things — that includes sharing dinner with the Vietnamese-American family who pray for my health and wellbeing even though we had just met, watching and caring for my plants as if they are my own children, calling my friends who are half the world away on my birthday, and receiving check-in messages from loved ones whenever the U.S. makes a startlingly bold move.
These little things remind me of a concept that has become more of a luxury every day: “home.”
This afternoon, the idea of “home” became more nebulous with each ICE-related text message and news article that we international students pass around to one another. For many, our home countries have become out of reach–be it for political or cultural reasons–while the U.S., the country that has in no small part shaped us into who we are today, is threatening to kick us out.
My mom once told me that in life, “always choose to be with someone who loves you more than you love them.” I love the U.S., but I don’t think the U.S. reciprocate, or at least not in the same proportion. The blatant discrimination and the xenophobic policies (which I believe will only get worse if the new ICE directive is not blocked) has rendered the “American dream” an impossibility.
How can you dream if you cannot sleep? But the prejudices, the institutionalized racism, and xenophobia have made us toss and turn, and wonder whether our existence in this country is a gift or a curse.
Six years and counting, I’m like a circus performer tiptoeing along a tightrope that conjoins two vastly different worlds. It’s a wild and thrilling experience that brings joy as well as anxiety. I cannot say I’m disadvantaged because in reality, I am thankful for the privileges that have allowed me to travel and explore new possibilities in this foreign country.
That said, on days like these, when my footsteps wobble on that tightrope, I wish I could, just for a moment, enjoy being back home and unencumbered by the weight of being “other people’s child.” It must feel so safe.
What about you? Do you yearn to be back home? If you could turn back time, would you still choose to study abroad?
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