Last week I walked through an icy street into a mercifully warm, low-roofed stationary shop in Greenpoint, sat on a scuffed leather stool and asked a nice Polish man with a rusty old Canon to take a State Department approved photograph of my face.
I had just met with a lawyer who had walked me through all that was needed for my application to become a legal worker in America. In brief: no arrests, drug charges, money laundering or leprosy. I passed them all, though my winter-dry elbows suggested otherwise, and one cheeky 1500 dollar money wire transfer later the wheels were in motion. The only thing left was the photo.
Luckily, my photographer proved most thorough and, though a little shouty, thankfully more Annie Leibovitz than Terry Richardson in his approach (at one point he barked "SHOW ME THE EARS I NEED THE EARS PUT THE HAIRS BEHIND"). After five minutes of lacklustre posing on my part, he handed me my mugshot, and though my initial reaction was to wish I had not worn a hat on photo day, my second was to feel, honestly, very emotional .
This, after all, was the beginning of my first proper on-paper outing into a country I have lived in and loved for five and a half years. A document that will bring me freedom to work wherever I would like. I will no longer be a legal alien. In short, I'm going native.
It's a strange thing, being an immigrant. Firstly, it's a word that for numerous sad and true reasons makes one think of barbed wire fences and barking dobermanns and hazardous crossings in steam boats over salty seas. The reality, of course, is far more complicated and domestic and profound.
When I first arrived in New York City, from London, half a decade ago, I thought I'd only stay a year. It was one of the hottest Augusts in history and I didn't have AC. I remember thinking I could never take the humidity, or understand how multiple subway stations had the same name or just quite why the chocolate tasted so horrifically bad. I knew no one, and I didn't understand the street signs. For weeks I couldn't figure out the currency and my hopeless pound to dollar conversions meant I spent too much on lunch and not enough on laundry. I put on five pounds in six months because I thought that "half n half" milk was the same as English "semi-skimmed" (2%). I couldn't figure out why my lattes tasted so delicious.
But then I fell in love. First with the city. Then a few years later,with a boy. A genuine strapping American one. And I couldn't leave. Not now. Perhaps never.
Of course, I like to still rile my American friends and their heart breaking earnestness and frequent inability to laugh at themselves and their funny mouths full of too many rrrrs. Not to mention their recipes that include "cake mix" as an ingredient or their puritanical approach to workplace swearing or the afore mentioned affection for the dismal chocolate. I will always find "fanny packs" and people named Randy and the fact that my husband occasionally sounds to me exactly like Barney the dinosaur absolutely hilarious. Though when people ask me what I love about Americans I tell them simply- unabashed joy. I love how casually I have been able to slip into deep friendships and profound experiences here. How much more expressive and open-hearted and thoughtful Americans can be. Sometimes, when people ask the inevitable "what's the difference" question, I tell them to go and watch the little league baseball games in Central Park at the weekends. There is no kid too overweight, disinterested or just plain uncoordinated to be on the team.
I have lived here for five years, as a non-permanent legal resident. And in that time I've learned what a green card means. What it means to the tens of thousands of people who play a literal lottery each year to acquire one. What it means to the cab drivers descended from Ghanaian Kings and the Mexican owner of our favourite taco shop and the married gay friend who, thanks to US vs Windsor, can now live in the same country as his husband. This is a city, unlike any other worldwide, that was built on immigration- from people fleeing pogroms and civil war and famine. A small amount of often persecuted or suffering people, in the worst moment in their lives, choosing to get on a boat to a place they knew nothing of and see if they could figure something out. This is a city founded on that kind of inexplicable bravery. That blows my mind.
Immigration is so often reduced to a debate. The facts are this. It's never easy, regardless of wealth or privilege. And in most cases, it's nothing to do with exploitation or claiming benefits or asylum. It is often simply about belonging. More often than not, it's about love. For a parent or a child or a job or a town. Or in my case, a city and a man.
Five years in, this much I know. I started my immigrant journey by yes, being a little brave, but like so many before me, I ended it by being a little lucky.
"Oh say can you see, by the dawns early light, what so proudly we...." I will learn all the words, America. I promise.
I still don't want your chocolate