It had been six days since my anxiety found itself a cozy place in my throat, and even that didn’t stop me from taking a sip from the fanciest glass of Cabernet I ever held in my hands, $150 a bottle. The California sun fed its rays to the vines of Napa Valley, and I — a stranger to the West Coast until then — stood next to them with hopes that the sunlight would puncture my anxious knot. But instead, it didn’t leave for the entire month of October 2018. Sometimes it crawled down my spine, sometimes it sat on my heart, and sometimes flowed into my stomach and I lost my appetite.
For many years, I complained about how I didn’t get a chance to travel around America as someone who had been in the country for quite some time. After all, it wouldn’t have been right for me — a Turkish immigrant — to tell my grandma that I experienced America if, in reality, I spent most of my time in New England and then in New York. College was in Rhode Island and once that was over, it was almost as if my classmates and I had signed an unspoken contract to move to New York. But then that unspoken contract expired about three years later and unbeknownst to me, many appeared to sign a new one that took them across the country, to California. My grump and I, we, stayed behind and joked: “What is it with these people and their love of California?” But I knew I had to see what was out there beyond the movies I saw as a kid in Istanbul.
So, in September 2018, I bought a round trip to my first frontier, California. But in life, things rarely go according to plan, and mine turned upside down on October 1, 2018, when my visa expired as I was waiting for my latest status to be approved. A few months earlier, the government had sent my lawyers an RFE, Request For Evidence, to prove to them that I was as special as I claimed to be in my application. “How do we know that Deniz, a young reporter, cannot be replaced by an American?” they asked. Under Trump, RFE requests rose to 60% (compared to 22.3% in 2015), and I was one of thousands of people whose self-worth, in this system, depended on citizenship and labor.
I was still legally present in the U.S. but I had to stop working and wait for the verdict. As I ventured the streets of San Francisco on my own, I constantly parted ways with things that made me want to stay in the country more. Once I came back to my apartment in Manhattan, I shut myself in my tiny room in an effort to slowly sever any ties. On top of a pile of unopened envelopes and dusty books next to my bed, I placed one roll of toilet paper in case I broke into a cry in the middle of the night. But one day in November 2018, I received my approval letter. I had won myself three years — although technically I had to have a plan for my next step as soon as possible. While I still had no plan for the future, my roommate and I ran out of toilet paper recently so my unfinished “cry roll” went back to being “ass paper.”
There’s rarely a path to true freedom in America if you are an immigrant. The whole system is designed so that visas are not tied to someone’s integrity but to their workplaces, schools, romantic partners, family members, or coworkers. And an immigrant’s right to exist in one place is always contingent upon how hard they work, whether they’re a good partner, the perfect artist, or the top of their class. Somehow I had proved that for the time being, there was no American to replace me, and I wanted to live that.
It took me awhile to get myself out of New York but finally I flew to Houston, Texas, this summer in June. I had the best Tex-Mex of my life at Lupe Tortilla and will never forget the frozen Margarita-Sangria special at Pappasito’s and the fresh salsa, which — I learned that day — is delicious when served warm. I met a lot of new people, including Pablo who set up shop next to a Star Wars-themed dive bar even when it was 100 degrees and muggy and sweat dripped from his bald head. “I have a good Turkish friend,” he said as he looked at my credit card. “I like Turks.” Half of us are named “Deniz,” that’s how he knew.
Soon after Texas, it was 6:30 am and I was on a plane to Minnesota for work. “Isn’t this the smallest plane you’ve ever been on?” the woman next to me asked. If only I knew that my next flight from Minnesota to Grand Forks, North Dakota was going to be smaller. Three hours later, I sat at the very end of a maybe twelve row plane, two seats on each side of the aisle, and watched as we flew above endless shades of green. A day later, however, a source asked me to hop on a single-propeller plane and told me to pull the throttle. I moved uncomfortably in my seat while a headset drilled into my skull, constant static in my ear. Maybe I should take half a Xanax, I thought, but then pulled the plug that fired up the engine. The flying land-mower, Russ — who apparently just graduated from college but is one of the best pilots in North Dakota, and I made out alive. As a second grader at my private school in Istanbul, I was forced to read “The Girl Against The Jungle,’’ a 32-page book based on the true story of a girl who was the sole survivor of a plane crash. (This is also the story of how I learned the word ‘corpse.’). And I can safely say, 18 years after the book, I don’t think I’m afraid of flying anymore.
By the time it was July 4th, I found myself in Louisville, Kentucky, staring into my first authentic mint julep and stabbing the ice in the copper mug with my straw. Once I got to the airport the same night, I was quite tipsy (one julep turned into three), and a TSA officer, who saw my pain, offered me small talk rather than Alka-Seltzer: “How are you feeling today?” Well, it’s 4:30 am so I’m not super lively, I joked and handed him my Turkish passport. He carefully studied the tiny book, looked at its cover, then looked at me and said: “But your English is so good. Why?” I’ve been living here for a decade, I responded. “I feel you, honey, but you’re still not a citizen,” he concluded our conversation by reminding me that I did not belong — but I was too tired to give a damn. I slept like a baby until the wheels touched the ground at Newark Airport.
Five days later, I spent my birthday in San Antonio alone with a deep-fried brisket sandwich, which — I was told — was a local specialty but shortly after I found out I was lied to. I came back to my room and blew out a match that came with the check at the Esquire Tavern, which apparently has the longest wooden bartop in Texas. In the morning, I met up with a seasoned reporter in San Antonio, Bob Rivard, who offered me a ride to Carrizo Springs, a tiny town by the U.S.-Mexico Border where the government had opened its latest shelter for migrant children.
“Who comes up with these terrible ads in this country?” I asked Bob during our ride and pointed at the giant goat on a roadside billboard. “Don’t text and drive,” the goat said. “You herd me.” Bob was intrigued so I told him about the “Your wife is HOT. Buy an A/C” billboard in Kentucky and that I’m still wondering why a nice seafood restaurant in Palm Beach had bail bond ads on its flimsy one page menu. I also learned that “six weeks is a heartbeat,” thanks to a highway in Florida. You should write these down, Bob said.
Our trip took 2.5 hours and midway, we passed by a large construction looming over the other side of the highway. That’s a CBP checkpoint, Bob told me, but it’s not open right now. On our way back, we saw a functioning checkpoint and rows of cars waiting to go through. Our road was clear, and a lot greener than I expected it to be until we got to Carrizo Springs. A caliche road led to a sign that read “The Studios.” Another one said “Your Families Are Waiting For You.” We toured a state-of-the art facility for migrant children which used to be a camp for oil-field workers in Texas. A federal employee told us not to talk to the kids besides “Hola!” and “¿Cómo estás?” but I still took down quick notes: “It’s 110 degrees. Kids are still separated from their families, if not their parents. Mami, Familia, Papi, Te Amo, Los Extraño.” If one of you goes back and doesn’t compare this to a concentration camp, I think I’ve done my job right, the government representative told me and chuckled as the reckless Texas sun burned his pale skin. I told him to drink some water.
If one of you goes back and doesn’t compare this to a concentration camp, I think I’ve done my job right, the government representative told me and chuckled as the reckless Texas sun burned his pale skin. I told him to drink some water.
Less than a week after Texas, my intrepid soul forced me to board a plane to Los Angeles along with passengers with special needs. I held my back and limped my way to the gate — I had terrible back pain. My ex told me to rest in New York but my mom suggested otherwise since “I had already paid for it.” I slept on a stiff air mattress at a good friend’s apartment in West Hollywood and the objectively uncomfortable bed was all my back needed. With the help of a few Advils and my stubbornness, I stood up and visited Venice Beach, the Walk of Fame, toured Paramount Studios and even touched a prop tree from Star Trek that Chris Pine allegedly stood next to at one point.
On one of the days, I met up with a friend from high school at a tiny American restaurant in LA’s hipster Silver Lake (Oh, didn’t that woman play the girl who constantly chewed gum in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Violet, yes, Violet). My friend took a piece from her “Turkish eggs” and shook her head: “This place wishes it was authentic Turkish.” A few years ago, she quietly married her boyfriend which, while helping her solve her visa problems, also proved to be one of the best decisions of her life. They now live together in the sunniest city I’ve ever been to and are happily raising their dog while tending to their garden. If it feels right, there’s no shame in getting married, I told her. She wanted to prove to the world that she didn’t need help from anyone to survive in America — especially not from a man. But as time goes by, I realize that everybody needs help. I know I do. I wish all of us talked more about that.
After a few days in LA, I took the Pacific Surfliner — the Amtrak train from San Luis Obispo to San Diego — for another story. Somewhere between LA and Anaheim, the train came to a halt. “The train’s dispatcher…” No matter where I am in the world, the dispatcher follows me. Stuck on the PATH train somewhere between Manhattan and New Jersey, or in a slim tunnel in the East River, it is the train’s dispatcher who tells me to wait indefinitely in a can full of strangers.
But that day, when I looked outside, I saw a man lying face front, his pants pulled down. A white sheet covered parts of his head and torso. Not an ordinary stop. A group of officers stood next to their LAPD SUVs and stared at the body. So this is what death looks like, I thought. I had never seen it before. Twenty minutes later, we passed by Laguna, and I remembered my teenage years watching Laguna Beach. No not watching, devouring the lives of rich American girls, thinking I’d never see their corner of the world. Then I watched surfers carefully flirt with the waves. I envied their freedom and cried a bit.
Once I was in San Diego (Group text: Can somebody tell me why we don’t all move to San Diego?), I hopped into an Uber. “We’re going to do something very weird today,” I told Timothy, my Uber driver and reporting companion for the day. His eyes lit up. Tim said he lost his wife a few years ago so he became an Uber driver to meet people. Uber apparently told him just recently that he has driven customers from 48 different countries. “Just yesterday,” he said, “I picked up a guy from Iraq who loves San Diego.” The man asked Tim why anyone would want to live in Iraq, clearly a rhetorical question from an immigrant. Tim told me he said he had no clue, and he flapped his arms sticking out of his baggy green T-shirt.
We traveled around the city for an hour or so while I took down notes. He dropped me off at the Gaslamp District and shouted after me: “Feel free to use my name in your story.” I joined a crowd of Comic Con fans and sat next to a vampire at a bar before I went back to my hotel where I was told via email to expect a surprise. “Do you want your free surprise?” they asked me at the front desk. Turns out it was a chocolate chip cookie — warm. No, thanks, I said. When I got to my room, there was a free notepad and a pen by my bed. “Did you get your free cookie?” it said on both of them. I finally went downstairs and got the cookie.
Soon after I came back from my trip to SoCal, the government decided to shut down the facility I had visited three weeks ago. In the midst of stories, photos, videos, and public documents that showed the controversial conditions migrant children lived under, the government invited a bunch of journalists to a relatively nice facility and then shut it down a few weeks later once all the relatively positive stories were out. My skepticism evoked a new energy in me that I didn’t know I harbored; the taxpayer energy.
“That’s a terrible use of taxpayer money,” I thought. Oh wow, I took a step back, isn’t that so American of me? I pay so I have a say. I have a say in this $300 million program for migrant children that shut down after bleeding millions of dollars because this is the first year I’m paying taxes as much as an American counterpart who makes the same salary. My money has a stake in this so can I be louder now? But my euphoria faded when I realized that immigration, no matter how life forces you or allows you to do it, depends on the mercy of a person who has more power than you by virtue of their passport. So I jokingly told people that I’ve finally become American because now I understand and believe in “No Taxation Without Representation.” That line always gets a laugh. But once the chuckles fade, Americans go back to being American, and I go back to being me.
My favorite faux-weakness for applications of any kind has always been my determination disguised as relentlessness. “I never give up,” I have said. “That, naturally, can cause me to spend too much time on things that will never work out.” I will travel hours to find one document, make a thousand calls to get that one statement right, or get on a single propeller plane when I can’t even stand a Boeing 757. But oh boy, I say, when I hear my naive self, the one that didn’t pack and leave for Istanbul when her interview with a prominent New York publication ended early because she didn’t have a Green Card. “Oh, you don’t have an accent, so we thought…” Yes, I studied acting in college and a professor told me that since I don’t look ethnic enough, I should get rid of my accent. And I did.
Just recently, I was walking down 23rd Street, slashing across the city with my swollen feet, dodging the woman with her Whole Foods bag and the Airpods guy hypnotized by his phone screen, and I realized I was angry. Very angry. It was the type of anger that alternates between Daniel Powter’s Bad Day and Thunderstruck by AC/DC. It was the type that sends tears to my eyes or makes me think if I, maybe, can push through this latest challenge called immigration, I’ll finally be the invincible woman I have always aspired to be. But instead, I decided this is the story of how I find out I’m ordinary. Not the wunderkind that my parents seem to believe I am, not the I-can-do-it-all woman I thought I was, but the 20-something who decided to take on a ridiculous task 8 years ago by moving to America and still does not have a clear path to feeling like she truly belongs. Inevitably she wonders: When will I know?