A Greencard story

About luck, about crossing borders,

and about home.

 * * *

Traveling means to cross borders. In the beginning that is interesting and exciting. But over time this inevitably changes; crossing borders, especially international borders, becomes a chore. Traveling inevitably teaches that international borders are only an expression of culture and political history and always an impairment of freedom. For travelers crossing borders is a pain in the neck. The necessity to respect borders is an annoying burden. You cannot cross borders as you please. And it’s even more critical how long you remain on the other side of a border. You have to explain exactly who you are or rather provide an explanation, a label others have given to you (a passport, ID, visa, etc.). To own a label can be more important than to have a face.

By traveling and stepping outside of borders you widen your horizon. By gaining the surprising perspective of seeing a border from the other side you are bound to understand what borders really are. What is inside the borders, what seemed sufficient and complete can suddenly reveal a connection to a larger picture that changes everything. But it is not only that the picture is larger, eventually, one can see that it is indeed nothing but a view, a picture, that the size of it is not the point. One not only gets a broader view, but, based on understanding view as a phenomenon, on begins to see with new eyes. It is not only another perspective in the sense of new, more, and better but another clue for understanding how perception is intrinsically conditioned by any perspective.

When you start traveling you always take something with you, something that you think you need in order to be what you are. At first, it’s just stuff, maybe certain clothes, for example, things we think we cannot do without. We only reluctantly leave stuff behind. What we hang on to the longest are ideas, concepts. One may have started traveling feeling like a German, like an Iranian, or like a European in my case. But when you travel you see also a Frenchman feeling French, an Italian feeling all Italian and a Canadian feeling totally Canadian, you eventually see the point: it’s trivial, it’s misleading. All this will gradually fall by the wayside. This identity stuff may be true and interesting to some extent, but doesn’t it distract from what is really much more interesting? Isn’t it indeed amazing how similar we actually all are, even in hanging on to identities?

I can’t help chuckling about some travelers who carry their flag around all the time. What do they want to say? That their nationality is what they find interesting about themselves? That they don’t want to be confused with certain other admittedly quite similar travelers? Maybe that they feel homesick? Who couldn’t relate to all these motives? But how can you truly open up to a new place, to new people, when you come with a condition, when you are busy holding up a sign: “I’m special! This is how I want to be seen”! How can you see when you are concerned about others seeing you? (John Updike said it in ‘Self-Consciousness‘: “One can either see or be seen”.)

What you mostly start out with are aspects of what separates, what identifies, and what restricts you. What you gain while traveling are aspects of what connects, what includes, and what enlarges you. You start traveling as “somebody” who doesn’t know much who he is; you come back (if you ever do come back) as “nobody” who knows a lot more about “being somebody”.

It’s common for people who travel extensively that they think at first that it is the world that is changing. We rarely notice how subjective and simply inaccurate this “view” is. When we travel we find ourselves forced to continuously change our mind. And gradually we see it, we cannot escape it, all what is changing our mind was actually there before we started looking, before we physically moved in order to look, so it must be ourselves that has changed.

We had learned many things on our travels. One was that traveling is not only moving, traveling is also remaining; in the long run you don’t just want the freedom to cross borders but also the freedom to remain on the side of a border. Real traveling is arriving and leaving at the same time.

When we gradually discovered the pragmatic need for a place to stay, to rest, to flee to when traveling got uncomfortable, when we discovered the more mundane aspects of traveling, we were lucky. But what is luck? Luck seems to be something suddenly happening in your favor that is intrinsically beyond your control. But when you really look, that’s not all, that is not the essence of luck. Luck may present itself to you in the form of a sudden potential, but you still have to notice it and make use of it before you become lucky. In order to be lucky, you certainly have to be willing to wait; you have to be patient in the sense of letting things happen by themselves. It is crucial that waiting for luck needs constant attention. If you don’t pay attention, you may simply miss it. Luck doesn’t come to you and say: ”Hi, here I am, I came to help you, what do you want?” Luck is suddenly there, kind of unexpected, it doesn’t say anything, only when you actively approach it, will it fully reveal what it can do for you. And you can only do this when you are in a way prepared, when you expect the unexpected.

We had started to check out countries for their long-term stay policies and immigration rules for “retirees”. (That’s the status we found ourselves in when we didn’t want to participate in the money-making thing anymore). Besides the USA, there were Australia, New Zealand and Canada that had a lot of appeal to us. But we soon learned that there are actually very few countries that welcome you just because you can support yourself and are not going to be a burden. This cosmopolitan idea turned out to be quite naïve and unrealistic. If you are able and willing to offer either work or significant investment of a kind that happens to be in demand, there is often the possibility to immigrate, but nowhere are retirees really welcome. Unless, of course, they bring money. There are always ways to settle in illegally, but for us that was out of the question, because what we really wanted was a place for rest, for peace, a refuge, not another game. Still wholeheartedly enjoying our traveling life but on the lookout for options to slow down and even stay somewhere, we found ourselves hopping from one continent to the next and beginning to feel some frustration.

It was two days before a flight to New Zealand when luck presented itself to us. We were staying with friends in San Francisco. They knew someone working with Immigration, and I found myself reading a little 4-page report on a special immigration program dealing with an amazing ‘greencard lottery‘. (A greencard is a visa for permanent residence in the USA). I read this paper late at night, Parvin was already asleep, and I was tired. Only partly interested, and doubting that it would in fact contain anything new, I read it anyway – somehow probably expecting the unexpected. I noticed a few facts that caught my attention, and I started to study the whole thing. This report was a review of the legal background of a brand new immigration program, seemingly designed directly for people like us. I read again and again, thought about it, and woke Parvin up because a wonderful possibility seemed to be visible between all these lines. We stayed up most of the night and had a plan the next day.

It’s no secret that the vast majority of new immigrants to the US are Latinos and Asians. A great number of other nationalities, mostly from the developed world are drastically underrepresented. This program was supposed to be an attempt to adjust these demographic statistics and contribute to a more diverse ethnic mix of nationalities coming to the US. So there was a declaration of intent that a substantial number of extra visas were to be given exclusively to these “underprivileged” countries: Some 20 nations worldwide, like Australia,New Zealand, West European countries etc. –Germanyamong them. The number of 40 000 visas per year was mentioned [for reasons unknown to me, half of it reserved for Ireland], which meant about 1000 visas per country, per year. Not much, but the really amazing detail was that they planned to distribute these visas through a lottery.

The report also discussed the legal background and gave information about many details of this lottery that were highly technical and difficult to understand. I soon discovered a number of quite lawful possibilities and tricks to improve your chances significantly.

The basic idea was that any citizen of these nations could send in a simple application, just expressing his/her desire to immigrate to the US. Anyone would be picked randomly until the contingent of visas for this country was exhausted. In order to get his visa the chosen individual still had to pass through another standard qualification process (medical etc.), but that didn’t look like a problem

First, it turned out to be entirely legal to send in multiple applications, in fact as many as you liked. (This was not so hard to figure out; so, many people sent in astronomical numbers of applications, and they sent them in all at the same time. Later, I was amazed to hear that the postal system at the designated address got clogged and broke down for a moment because of this). But the report also hinted of a strange procedure they planned to use to process the incoming mail. Any mail to this specific address would be rejected when it arrived before a well-defined opening date. Then they would grab into this flow of incoming applications and accept them until the number for each contingent was satisfied. The beginning of this “hot” period was defined precisely not only to the day but also the hour and surprisingly even the minute. Anything arriving prior to this well-defined crucial starting moment was not used and lost. Anything arriving after an ample two-week period was of course lost as well. It was easy to imagine that the merely 1000 valid applications would be obtained very quickly, long before the full period of entry time was exhausted.

All this detailed information was scattered within a lengthy description and disguised in terribly difficult lawyer’s language. I was sure that not too many foreigners would actually read and understand it.

So the secret was to try to make your letter arrive at precisely the right time (possibly minutes after the count down began). A large quantity alone wouldn’t improve that chance much, but many letters, all arriving at different times, would. It was easy to imagine how attractive this program would be, especially for Europeans. Anticipating the incredible number of multiple applications, I was sure that such a selection job could only be done efficiently with automatic sorting machines. To produce a substantial number of identical applications was a good idea, but the real thing was to try to create a dense, more or less continuous flow of incoming letters around this crucial starting time. As it was obviously impossible to predict the probably highly complex mail-handling process, the flow should start way before the count down and stay dense long enough until the decisive process was most likely to be over.

What we did was to mail 100 letters per day for 6 days in a row, beginning 7 days before the starting point. So the last set would probably come too late and the first one most likely too early. Besides that, the 100 per day were dropped in as many different mailboxes as possible and at different times of the day. And each day we also did a few by special delivery and registered mail.

Preparing 600 letters, even by photocopying, was a lot of work, especially in the last hectic hours before our departure. The actual feeding of the mailboxes at the right times had in fact to be done by our dear friends because we were long gone by then and exploring New Zealand.

But the story is not over yet. We had to officially apply from a German address and would only be notified there if we would win and receive a number. In case that happened we still had to qualify in an additional standard process also in our home country. So we traveled through New Zealand and kept asking Parvin’s brother in Germany in regular phone calls if some official mail from the US had arrived.

Time went by and nothing happened. From the distance the whole thing soon appeared pretty ridiculous, and we started to forget about it. But then, about two months later, they did mention a peculiar letter from a US immigration office, and, for the first time now, we got really excited. Maybe we could clearly see luck for the first time now.

We asked them to forward the letter to New Zealand and decided to wait. We were told it would not take more than a week. Wellington is a pretty rough place at the southern tip of the North Island. Rainstorm after rainstorm came strafing the forlorn place (which is actually the capital of NZ), and we hung out with the local Maoris on the piers, catching tiny little fish, and walked to the post office every day. To make it short: the letter never arrived, it got lost on its way around the globe.

What a tragic turn! There was this once in a lifetime chance to find a peaceful haven in one of our favorite countries; we recognized the luck and used it, and then we lost it again. Or was it all just hype? We didn’t really know, after all, if the strange letter was in fact what we hoped it would be. To talk to the immigration people in the US was hopeless because we didn’t know our so far only hypothetical magic number, probably lost with the letter. We also couldn’t be completely honest about the situation because one condition was to really ‘reside‘ in your home country from where you applied. Remembering other details of the program, I knew that all visa numbers would be offered to the lucky winners in chronological order, if one would not respond or not qualify in the follow-up process it would be transferred to the next one. So waiting, now, after we had presumably been notified, would quickly diminish our chances again. Should we accept our fate to be unlucky, or should we persist and keep working on it?

Well we did some well-prepared late-night phone calls [for Europe, NZ is exactly on the other side of the world] and got the right people on the phone at the US-embassy in Frankfurt. We pretended to be in Germany and asked them to send us a certain application form. We already knew that any application this way would be hopeless; however, it would formally start a new application process. By taking our data they noticed: “oh you are already registered, there is a number!” and that was exactly what we wanted to hear; we got the confirmation that all this was really true.

Well, it worked; we quickly flew to Germany and showed up at the embassy. The number was there, an interview was scheduled and easily passed, a health check confirmed that we were not insane or AIDS-infested. And we received our Greencards [which are actually not green at all]. Now it was the USA where we could stay forever. Would it be our new home?

It may happen, when you travel, that you change your idea about home, about belonging and identity, that you change it so much that what used to be home with a profound, almost spiritual meaning, may become just the place where you came from. It is just the region, the environment where you picked up certain habits, like your accent, certain views, in times when you were innocent, unaware of alternatives and didn’t know better – just a place where you happened to be at a certain time. Home is an aspect of you – unnecessary to change and of course impossible to change. Many people see tremendous responsibility in their feelings toward home; I can deeply relate to that but find it problematic to restrict these feelings to the place where I was born [or grew up]. I see my responsibility toward the place where I am, not where I was. And when I think this out: where I am, is clearly not only a nation [the place surrounded by borders], it may be the globe with its natural boundaries, but why stop there? I feel responsible toward the future, not for the past; and the future starts precisely where I am, right now. When you travel, this whole concept of origin and identity may thoroughly change. Other countries may become home, due to fate, due to bad or good luck, due to preference. And the whole idea of home can be transcended altogether and be replaced by a very different sense of belonging, independent of conventional borders. The passports, visas, tourist- and immigrant-status are not so much perceived as laws anymore that protect your individuality (because all that got worn down on your travels) but as rules of a game.

When we traveled, we gradually stripped ourselves of almost all our belongings. Home became something we didn’t have anymore. But we didn’t feel that we lost it like you lose your key, we rather felt that we learned the deeper meaning of it and began to feel at home everywhere. So it was, in fact, much more a gain than a loss.

But home is not only this mythical place of belonging. In the real world of borders and possessiveness, it is also a very pragmatic place where you simply are allowed to be. And in a traveler’s life, this will, sooner or later, always be a serious question. You may consider the world your home, but where are you allowed to stay?

It still took several years before we felt the need for a house again, before we really settled in the US, bought a house, and unpacked our big crate with our last belongings from our previous life, shipped over from Germany. This strangely symbolic box full of leftovers, our secular stuff, once dramatically, painfully reduced, over and over again, but still a pain in the neck, because we never found the courage to really get rid of it all. This beloved-hated “stuff”, this emotion-saturated physical rest of personal history; now it’s neatly spread out in the new house again, lying around and apparently fulfilling its mysterious purpose that I’ll never completely understand.

Last, but not least, it’s also quite instructive how things went on with this unusual immigration program: It is still in use and of course extremely popular, but they have changed the rules immediately after this very first time (when it was designed exactly for our luck?). No more multiple applications, no more tricks. Plain luck now! So it really was a once in a lifetime chance. It’s so interesting how we intellectually understand our luck only in retrospect (if at all).

And dreams don’t really come true by themselves; you have to do something…


             Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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