Tuesday 2 September 2008

timeline to britishness

Before I start, I realize (realise) that I have been posting wordier entries these days. Perhaps I am turning to this blog as more of a journal to chronicle thoughts and experiences... or perhaps I have been neglecting my camera. Either way, I will be sure to post more photos soon.

The first time I visited the UK was 10 years ago. I spent the summer travelling and visiting friends who had already returned from Japan.

I came back for a mini-reunion of sorts with the Japan gang over New Year’s 2000.

In December 2003 and January 2004, I spent four weeks travelling around Europe (Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy). My flight back was from Heathrow, so we met up again on the last night of my trip.

One month later I turned 31 and began to wonder if I was living the life I wanted, or just going through a comfortable existence where things happened around me and to me with very little active participation on my part. I decided it was time for me to take charge and change my direction.

In May 2004, M&K got married, and it gave me another reason to visit London. At the last minute, I filled out an application for postgraduate study at SOAS, bought a dress for the wedding, and crossed the Atlantic again. Six weeks later, I had my acceptance letter. I quit my job, sold my furniture, stored (a lot of stuff) at my parents’ house, moved out of my apartment, and signed my car over to my sister.

SER came with me on an overnight road trip to LA to get my student visa. It was dated 3 September 2004. I flew to London on the 13th.

As I was wrapping up my dissertation in late August 2005, S and I started dating. I still had a few months left on my student visa, and was initially confident that I could find a job and work permit sponsor. I had underestimated the importance of UK work experience – I had no idea that ten years of working in Japan and the USA, plus a Master’s from University of London, would be deemed insufficient. It all felt very unjust.

My only hope was to secure a Highly Skilled Migrant Program (HSMP) visa on my own merit. With my student visa expiring on 30 January 2006, I applied for the HSMP on 16 January and was rejected on 24 January. I cried for days.

I appealed the decision on 16 February (thinking that my birthday would be a lucky day), and was informed on 14 March that the rejection had been upheld. I was running out of time.

So S and I made a bold decision. I informed the Home Office that I was withdrawing my application for Further Leave to Remain/HSMP and flew back to California on 11 April 2006. One week later, I met S in New York. Our families kindly surprised us by joining us there. We applied for our marriage license on Thursday 20 April and got married on Friday the 21st. First thing Monday morning, I applied for my spouse visa. A mere 90 minutes later, I had it! S flew back on Tuesday and I joined him on Friday 28 April 2006. For the first time, I was officially on the path to settlement in the UK.

I was granted Indefinite Leave to Remain on 4 April 2008. I gathered my ‘Japanese’ British buddies again and got them to countersign my application for naturalisation. I applied for British citizenship on 6 May 2008. It felt like eons, but was actually just under 17 weeks, before I got my approval letter last Saturday.

And now, on 2 September 2008, almost exactly four years after my student visa was issued, I am British.

There are two more significant milestones for me to reach: getting my UK passport and my UK driving licence. But these feel decidedly attainable after some of the uncertainty of the past few years.

I should point out that my bureaucratic battles have been nothing compared to some of the challenges people undergo to immigrate to different countries. The longest wait I ever had was getting citizenship – a mere 116 days. In some countries (I’m looking at you, Ireland and USA), it takes years for the same process, on top of all the years it takes just to qualify for citizenship in the first place. I was rejected for the HSMP, which (at the time) felt like the end of the world. As it turns out, it was the biggest blessing in disguise. In November 2006 they changed the rules for HSMP holders, and many of them are still in visa limbo while various judges and immigration officers decide their fate and future in the UK. I have been treated fairly and with courtesy throughout my experiences. The only immigration officer who ever threatened not to let me in was actually the first one I met during my trip in 1998. Otherwise, I have encountered a few grumpy immigration officers at airports, but always managed to get my entry stamp.

In fact, the most painful part of the entire process has been the expense. I have yet to add it all up, but it is well over £3,000 just in fees – much more if you consider the costs of flights, postage, passport-size photos, etc.

So here I am: an American-Brit. (That sounds clumsy, but I don’t think that British-American is accurate to describe an American who becomes British.) Can I now tick the box that says White British instead of White Other on those ethnicity questionnaires? Or does my American-born blood keep me in the domain of Otherness? I have also become European. Maybe Other is more appropriate after all.

Will my upper lip get progressively stiffer? Will I ever invest in a proper mac and wellies? I already complain about the weather…

Stay tuned for my next adventures!

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