Accomplishing the Impossible

Accomplishing the Impossible

Every time I get mired in the rejection fugue brought on by the inability to sell my latest work, I remind myself, as everyone does, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Getting published isn’t as impossible as it feels. And even if it is, I shouldn’t feel daunted. After all, I’ve already accomplished one impossible thing.

I wrote recently about the affect moving to Canada had on my life. Just after we moved, I wrote extensively in a personal live journal (now defunct) about the process of gaining my permanent residence. While laying that journal to rest, I read back over my trials and recalled the frustration of those years.

Some people seem to think immigrating to another country is as simple as walking across the border, settling into the first available apartment, and greeting acceptance. The truth is, the process is mired in red tape, long wait times, and pages and pages of legal mumbo jumbo. Stout hearts can wither in the face of the application process, not to mention the processing fees. I have nothing but sympathy for those desperate souls struggling not only to understand, but to navigate the system to become US citizens. I have experienced something of their plight.

I moved to Canada in the summer of 2003, in August, two months after my wedding. I was 18. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and a good wife, but hadn’t any idea what else I wanted to do with my life (writing doesn’t make money, you know). My husband had been accepted to York University in Toronto, so that’s where we went. My husband’s parents picked us up in Maryland, where we lived for my last year of high school, packed all of our belongings into a Uhaul truck and drove us north across the border.

I’ve always been an anxious person. I was a bundle of nerves when we pulled into the border station and announced my intention to move to Canada. I knew next to nothing about immigrating at that point, except that I would have to fill out paperwork, wait a long time, and wouldn’t be able to work while it was going on. I thought I was prepared for that, but I really wasn’t. The border guard explained I would be granted a visitor’s visa that would allow me to stay with my husband while I underwent the immigration process and he handed me the first official document with my married name on it.

Canada was both exciting and dangerous. I felt strangely out of place those first few years, and not because dollars were now coins, milk now came in a bag and the government functioned completely differently. It was something more personal that made me feel out of place in what was supposed to be my home. It was the fact that I didn’t really belong. I was an American in a see of Canadians. I didn’t have the rights here that I had back home, not even the right to work. Things which would have been simple back in Maryland seemed impossible in Toronto. I was desperate to find a job, but in order to do so, I needed an employer who would be willing to help me apply for a work visa. And who’s going to do that when they can just as easily hire someone who doesn’t need the extra paperwork?

I struggled with depression those first couple years. I felt useless and unable to contribute to our budding family. I didn’t understand the paperwork I needed to fill out. And this was no three page account of who I was and where I came from. This was a twenty-page stack of official sounding documents, accompanied by an even larger stack of instructions, which were usually clear as mud. I did what every teenager does when faced with that kind of insurmountable wall; I tried to avoid it.

Every six months I had to re-apply for my visitor’s visa. I lived in constant fear they’d deny me and send me away. My husband and I had a long distance relationship for several years before our marriage and the idea of having to return to that until my immigration was finalized terrified me beyond measure. Worse was the fear of messing up my immigration and being stuck apart forever. Of course, because there wasn’t any record of processed paperwork for my residence, eventually the government DID ask me to leave. I still remember vividly the morning my husband came home from work (he worked at a bakery so he was out the door at 5:30 AM and sometimes home by 9AM), laid his hand on my back to wake me and told me the answer to my latest visitor visa arrived. “They said no,” he whispered.

My in-laws, without whose help a million things would have been impossible, as willing to help as they’ve ever been, made the trip from Kenora to Toronto (which requires a 2.5 hour drive to Winnipeg, and a 2.5 hour flight from there to Toronto), rented a car and drove us the 3 hours to the border of Buffalo so we could speak in person with an immigration officer.

I honestly don’t remember that conversation. I think my mother-in-law talked more than me. All I remember is the terror that they’d send me packing right then and there. I stood on the receiving end of a well-deserved lecture (though of course it takes years of hindsight to recognize that), and was incredibly lucky to be granted a month to get the paperwork figured out. A month to apply for my permanent residence, after a year and a half of not being able to figure anything out.

I can’t count the number of times I called the immigration helpline, or my in-laws, or how many times THEY called the immigration helpline. Suffice to say, it was a lot. As with any government paperwork, it was often unclear what information they wanted. Sometimes the directions contradicted themselves or left out information about certain areas. Sometimes the directions said one thing, the website another and the live person on the phone yet a third thing.

Somehow it all came together. I’m still not entirely sure how. Desperation can get a lot done.

Then I settled down to wait. I’m not sure if I mentioned this yet, but there’s A LOT of waiting involved in immigrating to another country. I waited 8 months for the government to process my permanent residence papers. In the US, I think sometimes people wait a decade for their paperwork to clear.

Finally, we received a letter summoning us to a live interview at an immigration office. I was nervous because I thought this would be another part of the process, that I’d have to answer an immigration officer’s questions correctly or risk getting the boot. We woke early on the morning of the appointment, departed for the subway station at 8AM, took the yellow line to the green line, took the green line all the way to the end, and killed time in a Tim Hortons since we were early. And all the while I sat on pins and needles, not sure if this would be a happy day or a horrible one.

They called my name last. By then I realized this wasn’t an interview; they were landing people. Immigration offices are scary. People come in and ask questions and get turned away. I recall while I was sitting on fire waiting for them to call my name, an old woman came in with her family. She must have been in her late 70’s. Her immigration documents had been denied but she’d apparently been in the country for 50 years. The family was trying to find out how to prevent her from being deported. I don’t remember what the woman helping them said, but I recall it sounded difficult and frightening. And I worried that would be me, that they would tell me sorry, but all this work was in vain and finally force me back across the border.

Then came the moment where they called my name, confirmed I hadn’t told any lies in my documentation, and pressed that big, beautiful stamp to my passport. They handed me a document I’m not allowed to laminate and told me to keep it forever since it’s proof I was landed.

And that was it. I was finally a permanent resident of Canada. Aside from finally being able to live in something other than constant fear of banishment, I was finally granted the right to work. And work I did; I started my first Canadian job at Starbucks two months after my landing (I couldn’t start sooner because I needed to apply for a SIN first – Canada’s version of a social security number).

It took almost three years, but I surmounted the greatest obstacle life had thrown in my direction until that point. And at that moment, I felt as if I could accomplish anything.

Gaining citizenship was a breeze in comparison. The government didn’t care about my background or health anymore. All they cared about was how many days I spent in Canada. Once I spent the proper number of days in the country, I could be Canadian.

Oh, and I had to take a test where I answered questions about Canada. Like the fact that there’s a maple leaf on the flag and baseball was invented here and other pointlessly easy questions that I spent months memorizing. I think the main point of the test is that you can read English (or French) and that you understand the duties of a citizen (voting, ect). As simple as it sounds, I remember a number of people at my test who didn’t understand English well enough to stop writing in the books before we were allowed to start, even after the woman administering the test stood over them and admonished them for cheating.

I was granted Canadian Citizenship on a Wednesday afternoon in a Toronto courthouse. There wasn’t a spectacular ceremony. We were introduced to the judge who would be performing the oath of citizenship and were reassured by her aide that she was a dour, serious person who would be very cross with us if we misbehaved. She was delightful. She had a little tin of goodies she gave to the children to play with while they waited the long, boring hours for the proceedings to finish.

We each had to get up, wait in line for our turns, present our permanent residence cards to the judge (we wouldn’t be having them any more since we were citizens now) and answer the all important question; “Do you have a criminal record?” Then the judge handed us our certificates of citizenship along with our citizenship cards and a Canada pin to wear. I was pleasantly surprised during my turn; the judge noticed the pentacle I always wear, complimented me and asked if I was Wiccan (I am).

My husband snapped a few fuzzy photos on my work blackberry while we took the oath of citizenship (in English and in French – “Try to say the french as best you can,” the judge told us).

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The most common question people ask me after becoming a citizen in Canada is, “Did you have to give up your American citizenship?” The answer is no, I didn’t. America requires you relinquish citizenship to any other country when you become a citizen, but Canada doesn’t. I maintain two passports, a US one and a Canadian one (and in fact the Canadian government encourages me to do so).

For all that I found the process horrible, I was lucky. I came from a country in good standing with the Canadian government. I didn’t have as high a risk of rejection as people from other places do. And for all that the Canadian system feels like a nightmare, from what I know it’s a cake-walk compared to the US system (or the British system).

And since I’ve already got one impossible thing under my belt, a second should be easy; right?

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