For this post, I interviewed Kate Kim. She’s worshipped at City Reformed since 2015 when she started as a PhD candidate at Pitt. As an immigrant, the stakes are much higher for her in her career path, and requires a great degree of trust in God’s faithfulness for circumstances that many of us easily take for granted. I asked her to reflect on her identity and place in the US.
KS: What is your immigrant status?
KK: I am currently on an F-1 student visa. I was initially a dependent on my parents’ visas until I turned 21, when I had to switch to my current visa.
Tell us you how and why you came to the United States.
My family (my parents and younger sister) and I came to the US in 2001. In Korea, it’s everyone’s dream to study abroad, especially in English-speaking countries. Around then, English was mandated as a required subject starting in the 3rd grade in Korean schools, and learning English is very important for one’s success. The Korean education system is highly repressive and highly competitive. So, when there’s an opportunity, people move abroad to English-speaking countries. My parents came to the US for our sake (their children), for us to have a better education and a better life. To do that, my Mom enrolled as a graduate student at a university and got her masters in linguistics; we came to live in the US as dependents on my mom’s visa.
How old were you when you moved? What made it easy/difficult to move here?
I was 12 when I moved to the US in 2001. This was months before 9/11, so it wasn’t difficult for our family to move to the States, especially because my mom was coming to the US to study. There were, of course, many difficulties in getting accustomed to a new culture. My sister and I were 6 and 12-year olds, so learning English was not a difficulty. We caught up really fast. But for my parents, the language/cultural barrier was hard, and is still hard for them.
One thing that was difficult for me in particular, was that I was just becoming a teenager, and because I was culturally split (Korean at home, but trying to assimilate with other kids at school), I had a lot of anxiety and shame from being different from other kids. I couldn’t relate to my peers at the same level of experience, although I spoke English fluently soon after I moved here. While I went to school in the US from 6th grade all the way to graduate school, all under legal status, I am still considered a non-resident alien in the US. While in college, I realized that unlike my other friends, I couldn’t apply for federal loans, couldn’t work part-time jobs anywhere I liked, couldn’t vote, couldn't take a gap year after college (in order to maintain my F-1 status), and couldn’t apply for certain professional schools. This is when I felt most lost and isolated, because in all other aspects I relate to the American culture, but legally, I am not an American.
Tell us about your ties to your country of birth, and to the US. What is “home” to you?
I’ve lived 12 years in South Korea, and 16 years in the US. The last time I visited South Korea was in 2006, when I was in high school. So, I don’t remember Korea very much…the memories I have are from my childhood, and I’m sure so much has changed in the last decade. So, when I think of “home”, I’m conflicted. Where is home for me?
A few years ago, my parents got their greencards, sponsored by their work. At that time, my sister was 18, and I was 24. The law states that for immigration purposes, once you turn 21, you are no longer a dependent, so my sister got her green card through my parents, while I didn’t. My parents and my sister are now on their path to US citizenship, and plan to make their “home” here. However, I am still on a student visa, and need to find my own way to permanent residency. In a few months, I will graduate and be a scientist with a PhD in the biomedical sciences. However, it is now difficult to get a work-related visa (H-1B) even in a science field. This makes my path to getting a green card much harder. I was hoping to do my post-doctoral research in the US while on an H-1B visa, meanwhile applying for permanent residency. However, this road has gotten tougher now.
What challenges do you face living in a country that is not your own? How do you deal with them?
Because I am bicultural, there have been many conflicts. Because I’ve spent more time in America than I have in Korea, I am more familiar with the American way of life. However, I can’t be a full part of it, because there are always restrictions on nonresident aliens for school and job applications. And of course, I cannot vote here. So, I am always culturally split.
I haven’t been able to visit Korea for more than a decade because I was on my student visa (some students like myself take a risk in visiting their home countries because there’s no guarantee we will be granted visas to return to the US to complete our studies). I have no connections in Korea besides my relatives. So, with this confused cultural identity, I’ve learned to rely more on my identity in God’s Kingdom. I’ve been instilling in myself that whichever country God intends for me to live, my identity in God’s Kingdom is constant, and that gives me comfort.
How has the 2016 presidential election and the current administration affected your life as an immigrant?
The calls to decrease immigration and the number of H-1B visas being granted* make me nervous, because my plan was to get an H-1B visa for post-doctoral studies, and eventually apply for permanent residency.
What do you wish people understood about your journey as an immigrant?
Even though I’ve lived legally and paid taxes in the US for 16 years, I was disqualified from getting permanent residency together with my family a few years ago, just because I was over over 21 years of age. My younger sibling who had the same experience as I did in the US was granted permanent residency, because she was younger than 21.
I am back to the start in my immigration journey – only this time, I am alone. The road to permanent residency has gotten more difficult, even for US-educated scientists like myself. I hope to be able to stay in the US with my family, but I also understand that God may have something else planned. And I trust that whatever may come of my immigration journey here in the US, God’s plans prevail, and for his good purposes.
* KS: Even if current numbers are maintained, H-1B visas are already extremely hard to get.