Spring Break may be over, but for me, profound experiences remain. It was my first time leaving and returning to the country as a green-card holder. The most salient moment of my trip was coming back to the United States through immigration with such ease. The swiftness of the process startled me because that was not the case 11 years ago when I first came to the United States from South Korea with a visa.
When I first arrived to the States, I was 10 years old — quiet, unfamiliarized and curious about the new life ahead of me. This anticipation, however, did not begin with hopes and dreams but was sunken by a skeptical Customs and Border Protection officer who scrutinized me and my family. At immigration, I observed my parents trying their best to catch the officer’s quick utterances and articulate back a response with their very imperfect English.
After many questions and answers that went back and forth, there came a moment that I’ll never forget. My mom answered no to a question that actually applied to us. My dad corrected the answer but this confusion put us aside for a bag search. I observed the people in dark blue uniforms take out my personal items one by one. If you don’t know what this feels like, imagine being stripped of your clothes in public piece by piece. That’s what it felt like to me, as a 10-year-old in a strange, new place, naked and violated.
Because of this incident, airports quickly became unpleasant and invasive places for me. What used to symbolize freedom, bravery and adventure, I no longer believed in. Since then, when I would hear friends were flying out to places such as the Bahamas, Cabo, Cancun, etc., it never occurred to me that I, too, could enjoy the process. I wanted to travel, but I felt restrained. I wanted to explore, but I felt unable.
As a result, I avoided any subsequent opportunities to travel by air. And I became envious of those who led exuberant lifestyles, not because they flaunted their wealth, but because they embodied something that I didn’t — carefreeness.
In 2009, I became a green-card holder. From what I understand, holding a green card makes things easier. People question you less. You blend in more with the crowd. Your contributions to the country start to be recognized. I knew these things to be true because this sense of belonging grew inside of me.
While these feelings grew, they were still small and incomplete. After years of saying no to visiting friends from out of state and family back in South Korea, a friend approached me to go on an international trip this Spring Break. I was conflicted. All the excuses that I’ve collected in my lexicon swarmed over me — flights are too expensive, planning a trip is hectic and traveling is just not worth the energy. Boy, was I wrong. Deciding to go on this trip changed my life. There were challenges along my travel but it taught me many things that may be trivial to most people but nonetheless invaluable to me.
I learned that I can’t use my nickname on the travel-agency site. Otherwise, I can’t fly out. (Yes, I missed my flight.) I learned that I have to put my laptop in a separate bin than my backpack for security. In addition to navigating the rules of travel, I learned that a tennis player from University of Toledo was headed to San Diego and takes pride in his bad haircut. I learned that a generous man who let me get in line before him had missed his flight the day before like me. (We exchanged a few chuckles.) These social aspects of a hectic day of travel were delightful.
Above all, I learned that it is possible to feel safe and secure while traveling. Coming back, I was guided to use the mobile passport app to hasten the customs process like everyone else. Passing immigration, I was put in the same line as U.S. citizens, and the CBP officer greeted me with a “How are you?” without one question about my travel. I was stunned at the difference between going through security 11 years ago compared to now.
This trip was significant because I was finally able to experience traveling in the way that people always spoke about. And I realized that this was a privilege. I came to understand how my visa status has determined my sense of personal freedom thus far. Therefore, I felt proud, and not ashamed, of my immigration status and was humbled by the privilege that came with being a permanent resident in the United States.
“Never forget where you come from,” they say. My parents worked hard to come to this country. And this was a special moment for me to remember that fact.
Gina Choe can be reached at email@example.com.