Anecdotes of a Quasi-Immigrant: I'm Supposed to go Where?
Updated: May 17
My boyfriend and I were eighteen years old. (He is now my husband). Neither of us had grown up in the United States. Both our families were living around Geneva, where we had spent the better part of our formative years. Both of us were using family "stretch" money to get to the United States for college. But we thought we were set: we had scholarships, we had a meal plan, we had housing included in our packages, we had rooms in our dorms, my father had bought each of us of the basics (including can openers, which we still have): we were set. But, we were immigrants. I was functionally an immigrant (a US-born citizen who had never lived in the United States, raised by non-US folks, abroad) and my husband was here on a student visa. We landed on August 14, 2001. We attended classes. We didn't party much. We studied. We were happy.
As the end of the semester drew near a funny little notice began to appear around our dorms. The gist of it was "Clear Out the Dorms for Winter Break." Excuse me? Winter break is a month long! And go where? You see, as a quasi-immigrant, there was nowhere else to go. Our families are, by definition, elsewhere. The dorms were, by definition, our homes. Once our home is removed and we have no family to run back to, where are we supposed to go? Were we supposed to pack up our lives and shimmy on to Europe? With what money? How many suitcases were we supposed to carry to take our dorm rooms with us? In what car? So, while the "deal" of our education seemed great--and it was, make no mistake, I am tremendously grateful for the wonderful opportunity to graduate debt-free--there were some unexamined shortcomings.
Ever industrious, we began looking for alternate housing arrangements. We had no means of transportation. Public transit was (and still is) non functional, we had no car, and no funds to purchase one. So the only housing we could seek was on campus. This reduced us to three options: another dormitory setting and two privately run apartment complexes. Lo and behold, the other dormitory setting was for graduate students only. One down. The cheaper of the two apartment complexes would not allow unmarried couples to live together. Color me shocked, as a European teenager, being banned from housing based on our marital status. We were "living in sin." Two down. So the more expensive privately run apartment was it. We found our accommodation: a one-bedroom apartment for $738/month.
Here is where things were a little different, in that we were coming from a background of privilege. My parents were sending $700 a month, which at the time was a significant investment (especially because the exchange rate was terrible). My in laws were sending $380 a month. So between the two, we were able to cover rent and some food. Or so we thought. But add utilities, which we had not thought of, and that little margin evaporated.
One month, the $380 didn't make it, and all of a sudden we were very, very short. We had two weeks to find the money for rent. I had to get a job. (Note: Privilege, here, is indisputable. I was a US citizen which meant I could find a job. I had superior access.) But to get a job, I needed a car to get off campus. A car costs money and buying a car requires having a car to go look at cars to buy. It's a whole thing.
I was eighteen, in a new city, in a new country, with no mode of transportation, and I was very unclear about what opportunities existed on campus. (I later found out I could've found a job on campus but it certainly was not something I understood at the time, or that had been advertised to me). This is not special. This is the immigrant tale. Luckily, my mother came to visit and after a few days in our apartment, with no ability to go anywhere, she too realized what was becoming painfully obvious: we needed a car. We really, really needed a car. So she got to work. My grandmother contributed the majority, my parents chipped in, and my in laws chipped in about a quarter. The grand total we pulled together was, drum roll please: $1,750. And off we went, looking for a vehicle.
Why not use financing you ask? Well, for starters, we would have to understand financing and that came much later. But mostly, as newly arrived people, with no history in the US, we had no credit scores. In fact, and you will chuckle, we had no idea what a credit score was, where one would get such a thing, how it worked, what was good, what was bad, and so on. I do remember going to a dealership and seeing if we could buy a $2,500 Pontiac. They said: "Yes!" And then asked for a 25% interest rate. Now, I didn't know much but I knew 25% was bananas. It would be worth noting, however, that again as a quasi-immigrant, encountering these practices is not unique but they are particularly repugnant because we were particularly vulnerable. Folks with little money, few resources, and in dire need will be more prone to make bad deals, because it is not a decision made out of choice but out of necessity. If I had accepted the 25% as normal, as it was touted to me, it would also have been a decision made out of ignorance because I did not know what "normal" interest rates were in the United States. The bottom line, though, was that I needed the car so I could get the job I needed to keep a roof over my head because the one I had planned for was taken from me, because I was a quasi-immigrant and my husband was definitely an immigrant, on a student visa.
So we ended up at a car auction. We muddled through and purchased a ten year-old blue Ford Probe, for approximately $1,750. With taxes, title, and fees, the total came to about $1,900. Ale and I were able to put in the extra funds, further increasing the gap between our money on hand and what we would need for rent. But (you know the drill): no car, no job; no job, no apartment. And round and round we go.
So I found a job, as a waitress at a men's club. (That story is for another post). Off I drove, every day, in my $1,950 car. But you know what happens to cars bought so cheap? They. Break. Down. So while we made rent that month, we were also immediately faced with a blown head gasket. Do you know how much that costs to fix? $750. You know how you pay that when you're barely paying rent? A credit card. You know the chances of paying down that balance? Low. You know the interest on that balance? High. Get the picture?
So, as it turns out, that little notice in the late Fall of 2001 set us on a road towards the American Dream and (for better or for worse) onto the rest of our lives. This was, however, the real American Dream, which included buying a car that constantly breaks down (requiring money we did not have to fix it), narrowly escaping usury, working for under minimum wage, a little wage theft, and the ever-present credit card debt. And so, and so, and so: Welcome to America.