Eighteen years ago, almost to the day, I stood in a small office in the Logan International Airport, Boston, Massachusetts clutching a sealed envelope to my chest as I tried to slow my galloping heart. In the envelope was a copy of my chest x-rays, not seen by anyone until the official in front of me would open them up. My pile of papers had been handed over and he riffled through them, tossing those aside that seemed unimportant. I am not sure I took a breath at all. I knew that if he found a mistake, if something seemed out of sorts, if something was missing, or a box was not checked, that was it. No questions, no explanations, I would be back on a plane to Denmark and all of the time, money, and hoping would have been for nothing. Standing there as an eighteen year old, I remember feeling so little, so scared, and so unsure of myself. My fate was in the hands of a stranger and all I could do was smile.
“What are you doing here?” or something similar is all I remember being asked. I must have answered correctly, in my perfect English, because he finally stamped my passport and handed it back to me. “Welcome to the United States of America…”
I am immigrant from Denmark. If you would have told me twenty years ago that I was to be a part of the American story I would have been perplexed at the notion. Leave my home behind? For good? I would not have been able to imagine such a future because being Danish was such a part of me. Of my future. Even if I was not sure what that future held.
Yet, when my mother received a job offer too hard to refuse, I was excited, hopeful that I too could come with my family. We spent months doing paperwork, traveling to and from an embassy that was more than five hours away. We had the means to do the travel by train, missing work and school as needed. Everything was checked and double-checked, every answer scrutinized. We had to be sponsored by my stepfather, an American citizen, even though my mother had a university professorship waiting for her with a guaranteed income. We needed health examinations, vaccinations, yes, even chest x-rays for tuberculosis. We had to promise our allegiance and know that even if all our paperwork was in order, once we stood in the immigration official’s office in the airport, by ourselves, it was still down to that individual officer to grant us the right to stay or send us on the next flight home. Nothing can prepare you for that feeling of lost control. When people speak of “legal” immigration as if it is just an application to fill out, I laugh, if you have not tried to immigrate to this country, you probably don’t know just how hard it is.
Yet, now, eighteen years later, I am not treated like an immigrant. In fact, I never have been. It is as if once I left the airport office then my Danishness faded away and people assumed that I was an American much like them. Blame my white privilege skin color that never make people pause over my heritage or race. Blame my stereotypical Scandinavian appearance and you will quickly see why my story is not viewed as part of the immigration tale of this great nation. And yet, I am not an American citizen, not yet anyway, my Danishness runs deep as I was shaped by a culture that may look similar but is so different in so many subtle ways.
I was raised in a country whose notion of racism is not based as much on appearance but more on religion. I was raised on a notion of adulthood by the time we reach 15. Of personal responsibility, but also being part of a social contract. I was raised to be outspoken, not afraid of hurting others but only hurting them when I chose to be silent. I was raised on the notion that religion is a private matter even if we have a state church and that it is not my job to tell you what to believe, nor how to believe it. I was raised believing in equality and love for all. That we need great education for all children so that we can become a greater nation. That we are only as strong as our weakest link and so we have a societal duty to lift others up when they need it. I was raised in a country that told me to be strong in my role as a woman, as a mother, as a feminist, to know that I too could rule a nation, where I did not have to hope for the future to look female leadership.
While my name has certainly given people pause, it is rare, if at all, that anyone assumes that I am one of those immigrants that shape this nation. That my family was fortunate enough, rich enough, to work our way to legal immigration. That my family had enough resources, not as we pursued a better life but one that would look very similar to the one we left behind. We knew there were opportunities in America, we are grateful for them, which is why we came. Yet when someone speaks of immigrants. Of how this country has enough of them. Of how we must close our borders or slow the flood to a trickle, I cannot help but wonder if they mean people like me or just people that do not look so darn American? If when we speak of vetting harder, or scrutinizing applications better, whether that would ever be applicable to someone like me?
So when we look at the names of our students. As we look at their appearance, at the history that is visible on their skin, are we really seeing all of them? Are we really getting their full story or only the story we choose to see? How often do we pain a picture of what an immigrant looks like and have little understanding of what it really means?
Eighteen years ago my dreams were in the hands of a nameless man, he held them as if I was just another appointment on his calendar, because I was. He had no care for whether I was approved or not. I walked into the office as a Dane and left as someone who belongs to two nations and yet at times feels lost in both. I left as someone who searches for their roots, knowing that they no longer fit into where they came from but are not sure that they fit completely into where they are. I have been changed. For the good and for the bad. I have become American, even as I have clung to my Danishness yet still seen it slipping away. I have loved this new nation, yet at times, not been sure that this new nation loves me. After all I am just an immigrant, and my dreams remain at times in the hands of strangers.