Navigating the US Paperwork Loop

My husband and I got married on a Swedish summer day. It was a low-key outdoor wedding; close family and friends were our only guests. We had no wedding planner, no catering, and no photographer. It was an altogether homemade affair. I was 24 years old. My husband to be was (is) American. Young and carefree, I never really thought about what this union might bring about. I had no idea that a few months after our nuptials I would be at the US embassy in Stockholm, a stack of (non-professional) photographs from our wedding in one hand and our marriage license in the other.

The clerk behind the protective glass in the drab reception room was not impressed by our pictures. “Is this all you have?” she said. She did seem to think they were genuine however, and that ours was a real union. We got the stamps we needed in order for me to follow my husband to Silicon Valley. My husband came first to find a place to live and to start his new job while I stayed behind to finish my job and pack up our house. What I remember most about the day I left is the big manila envelope I carried with me and never let go of. In it were x-rays of my lungs, a doctor’s statement on my health and of course, the visa papers from the embassy – this envelope was my ticket in to the US.

Getting through customs and immigration at SFO was time-consuming and involved a lot of questions: why do you want to live here, where are you going to live, how are you going to support yourself, are you a criminal, a communist? But, in the end I was let in without much difficulty – all my papers were in order after all.

Now that I was finally here, the real work began: I had to get a social security number and apply for a green card and, of course, get a California driver’s license. So, while my husband got busy with his new job, I got busy with endless phone calls and visits to various offices (you may have gathered by now that this was before e-mailing became a viable option for official communication). I filled out papers and tried to decipher what they were actually asking for, in what seemed like never-ending paperwork sessions.

Sometimes, when making phone calls and being placed on hold I would nervously repeat my zip code and social security number in my head. The person on the other end would usually ask for one or both of these almost regardless of the kind of phone call I was making. Even though I had always been proud of my ability to speak and understand English and considered myself fluent, I used to dread the phone calls because it was often hard to understand the person on the other end. He or she would undoubtedly speak very fast, use words I couldn’t quite parse, or speak with an accent. I can only imagine what this is like if your knowledge of the language is more limited. As I write this it strikes me that I was pretty lucky in that I could ask my husband when forms just didn’t make sense to me or when I didn’t understand what was being asked — he was after all a native.

Once I had received my social security number, and eventually my green card, life got a little simpler. Filling out those health insurance forms, while never fun, was at least possible, applying to take classes at my local junior college was not necessarily straight forward, but at least it was doable, setting up a bank account, yes! You get the picture — slowly but surely life got a little less complicated and more easily navigated.

The hurdles to getting settled in a new country are many and it can sometimes feel like you are stuck in a loop that never really opens up and lets you out as a complete and worthy participant in the society you now call home. It takes a while to get all practical matters dealt with but know that it will happen: the loop will open!

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