At the beginning of the Covid19 pandemic in the United States, I, too, hoped it would be gone by June. March, April and May would pass by, and soon enough I would be able to go home. By the third week in quarantine, as it sunk in that my home for the (un)foreseeable future would be my little apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, I found myself sobbing during a therapy session over Zoom. What had initially felt like a minor disappointment released a torrent of complicated feelings about living in the United States, and wanting, desperately, to go where I felt most loved. ‘It’s gonna be 10 years, next year is going to be 10 years since I’ve been here’, I said, as I heard my voice crack. Even though I was in a space where I should have felt most able to say what I wanted to say, I dissociated from the moment. I was watching a girl in distress. I was stunned at the force of her feelings, and the sense of abandonment and entrapment she felt. Why was she here, what was she doing here? She did not want to be here.
As my housemate and I accumulated the numerous, eager plants that would fill our home over the year, I came to terms with where I was and how I came to be there. Through my weekly practices of gentle pruning and watering, I began to inhabit a contemplative ritual that helped me feel connected to myself in this place. In this way, I was like many others, who in an effort to deal with the growing isolation and anxiety at the state of the world, were attempting to find new ways of living and relating with the things around them. In others, none of this was new.
In popular news, international students in the United States often appear in relation to statistics, tuition payments and their integration into the work-force. Viral memes about rich international students reinforce the idea that most of us are moneyed, detached third culture kids, when in reality, many international students live precarious lives, primarily dependent on their on-campus and summer jobs. With fluctuating exchange rates, even a middle class family might be suddenly unable to pay tuition for their student, much less living costs. Students from working-class or poor families have even fewer options. As people living with non-immigrant visas we are not classified as resident migrants, and yet experience the myriad experiences that come with moving to a new country. After five years, we become residents for tax purposes. Alternatively, this can also happen if we fulfil the substantial presence test, i.e. account for the number of days we have been present in the United States. In the states of California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where I have lived, it takes 183 days to officially become a resident for tax purposes. Our lives are divided and sutured by the institutions we are affiliated with, the stamps of passage which allow us legal entry, and the monies we pay to the state. Often, the many other ways through which we exist and make meaning of our lives are left blank and unaccounted for. What we love, how we become new people, how this place tears us apart, and what it gives us in return.
And yet, the F1 still remains one of the most desirable visas upon which to travel to the United States. Education remains a key aspect of social and cultural mobility, especially in Ghana, where a degree from U.S. academic institutions confers one with social privilege and access to more opportunities. This fact, alongside the sobering realities of the migration landscape, not just in the United States but all over the world, produces the sense that one must be more than grateful to be here, regardless of its own challenges. We must be so thankful, even with a bit of sand in our eyes. We must be so thankful for the good that we unsee the bad.
But how does the university make us, and what does the seemingly benign language about this particular kind of migration do to people? My time in the United States has been largely shaped by white, elite institutions. Positioned as covetous, progressive and forward-thinking, these universities are imagined to represent a pinnacle of success that people from all over the world desire. As a girl from Ghana, I am supposed to hold myself up against their white-walled centuries-long prestige, multiple distinguished alumni and faculty, and feel a surge of pride that I made it here at all. While this sentiment is understandable, it is also incomplete. Beyond the nation, these universities promise the conferment of a distinguished, global value upon all who enter its doors. In order to do this, they obscure the costs of this process on us as well as on others in the community. Moving from city to city based on whichever institution I am affiliated with, for example, I have often lived in white, liberal neighbourhoods, formerly filled with people of color who leave because of students like me. I go from white classroom to white neighbourhood, and always spend time trying to find other people of color, find other Black people. With these degrees, we are told we might feel the sting of racism a little slower, our pedigree might be elevated and those of us from shit hole countries may be able to disassociate from its entanglements. Considering that the university has a long record of reproducing all the violent, hierarchical logics from which we are supposed to be saved from, we know that is false.
field notes, where the field is another town, another city, another room, another erudite, a litany of great texts, and I remain the same. at times it’s impossible to wonder if I am not the field, if the tip of my fingers, my toes, the terrain of my body, are not the expanse across which this world might pass through. I lift a heavy hem from here to there to over there. I split a thigh out the side of my new dress.
When I go home for my first summer of field work, I feel out of place. I feel as though I have carried the university into a place it does not belong, introducing myself to participants as a researcher from a university in the United States. The people I’m speaking with do not seem to be overly bothered by my presence. It is I who struggles with how a place I have always known becomes a ‘field’, and how I, per authorization and affiliation, become a ‘researcher’. The university becomes what permits this transformation to happen, and it makes me uncomfortable, even as I take shelter in its validation and explanatory power. In a conversation with a new friend and potential interviewee, she exclaims while laughing: ‘you came all the way from America to do research on us? Go back!’ Later in the night, as we make our way to our homes, we find out that we grew up and live in the same neighbourhood.
In The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney critique the university as it professionalizes ‘study’ and conditions students to reproduce capitalist forms of social life that ultimately sustain the state and all of its attendant forms of violence. Considering the relationship of cross-national study to the formation of both imperialist and anti-imperialist movements, the university’s relationship to international, migrating students cannot be overlooked. In corporatizing the F1 status, that is, primarily recruiting students based on their ability to pay, the university does more than mark us by our visas, or as spectral representations of ‘intercultural learning’. It spectacularly alienates us from the struggles and knowledges of undocumented and precariously documented people in the United States and all over the world, which is to say that it alienates us from parts of ourselves. It severs.
Almost ten years from when I first arrived for study, my most wonderful memories, those which make me feel cared for, un-alone, seen, are those that happen in relation with others and away from the gaze of that which brought me here. The many long, sweaty nights out dancing; rollicking laughter and conversation at potluck dinners; a Haitian aunty attempting to speak creole with me at the supermarket; a sweet moment of shared clarity over a text.
The university promises me everything but joy.
Don’t let me be Lonely.
Lost in the sauce.
Lost lost lost
In the sauce
All the forms keep calling
Me an alien
ALIEN underline here,
US-citizen or ALIEN,
Go to line 10a --- YES or NO
Line 11c - do you have legitimacy
Do you have paper, the stamp on your forehead
Are you traceable, stalkable,
do you love this country DO U LOVE
yourself? are you good enough to BE here
do you love your country? do you love
us enough/more than -
You love yourself, alien?