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My American dream

| Monday, April 3, 2017

When I was 13 years old, I decided to attend college in the United States.

I was born in Yokohama, Japan, and lived in Arcadia, California, from ages 3 to 11. I moved back to Yokohama after fifth grade. At 13, I still missed America badly. It was difficult to be myself in Japan. I look Japanese and speak Japanese fluently, so most people expect me to be Japanese. But I am much more outspoken than the average Japanese girl, which has repeatedly gotten me into trouble. One memorable incident ended with my high school principal warning me that those unaware of my American upbringing would find my directness rude and appalling. It was possible to be myself in Japanese society, but the backlash for doing so was constant and painful. There are exceptions — I loved junior high. My friends, teachers and teammates understood, accepted and stood up for me. This was the first place in Japan where I felt I belonged. But often, I felt immense pressure to conform to the status quo. I never felt this societal pressure in America because there was no mold to fit into. I wanted to live in a society that condoned and encouraged individuality and uniqueness. I wanted the freedom to be myself. This was my American dream.

Applying to an American university from a Japanese high school, especially a public high school, is uncommon. APs and IBs are nonexistent. The endgame of the entire high school curriculum is the Center Test — Japan’s standardized college-entrance exam. My school covered nine trimesters’ worth of material in seven so the last two could be spent solely on exam prep. There were even extra classes for Center Test prep offered Saturdays and during summer and winter breaks.

My college application process also differed vastly from my peers’. There was the time I tried to register for my last SAT subject test and discovered there were no available seats in Japan (I flew to Los Angeles for one subject test — talk about pressure to do well). I taught my teachers how to use the Common App because it was in English, and they had never used it. There was much hassle over translating my transcript.

Despite all this, I never considered going to college in Japan for a second. Aware that my status as a non-U.S. citizen with financial need essentially halved my chances of getting accepted to any private university, I applied to fourteen schools. At that time, only five schools in the U.S. were need-blind for non-U.S. citizens (Notre Dame, by the way, was not one of them). Nothing could deter me. I was going to find my way to America, come hell or high water. “I would flourish more in America, and I would be happier in America” — this is what I kept telling myself my last trimester of high school, when the difficulties of applying to college in a foreign country started getting to me. “You can’t give up now,” I thought. “Just get through the next few months, and it will all have been worth it.” Since I was 13, I had promised myself that if I studied hard enough — if I was good enough — I’d get into a prestigious American university, which would open doors to my career of choice. Eventually, I’d become a U.S. citizen and live happily ever after. Everything would work itself out once I got to college.

I was both right and wrong.

Reality didn’t completely mirror my expectations. I didn’t anticipate that being an international student would bother me. When I learned I was the only incoming Japanese freshman at the sendoff party in Tokyo, my initial reaction was amusement because I had bet my mom 50 yen that I was the only incoming freshman. But I admit, I felt lonely when I saw classmates bonding over coming from the same city or high school. Sometimes, I even envied groups of international students speaking animatedly in their own language. In addition, I became hyperaware that I was a racial minority. There was a group project where I was the only female and only minority. My opinion was ignored several times, but when another member suggested the same thing two minutes later, everyone agreed. This nearly broke me. “I’m just as smart as these guys. My ideas are just as good. Why won’t they listen to me?” After exhausting all other possibilities, the sole explanation I could come up with was that I was a girl and Asian. I hated, even in my mind, accusing my group members of gender and racial discrimination. I was so lost as to what to do. It would be confrontational no matter how I broached it. I would be pointing a finger, accusing them of gender and racial discrimination. That couldn’t possibly make them want to work with me. The project ended before I could figure out what to do.

Nevertheless, I have never regretted coming to America for college. Here, I’m allowed to be myself without feeling like I’m wrong for doing so. Here, I can even speak up about controversial topics like gender and racial inequalities. The rare micro-aggressions I face are a small price to pay for the freedom to be myself.

Recently, though, I feel the chances of my working in the U.S. after graduation are slim. To work in the U.S., I would need to find an employer willing to sponsor me for an H-1B visa and win the H-1B lottery before my OPT of three years runs out. If I wanted citizenship, I would need to find an employer willing to sponsor me for permanent residency, maintain my permanent resident status for five years, then file for U.S. citizenship. This is all if current H-1B laws don’t change. Under the new administration they most likely will — if the OPT duration gets shortened, or the program gets cancelled altogether or the minimum wage of H-1B visas gets raised substantially, then I’ll be in trouble. Right now, it’s already a struggle searching for companies that hire non-U.S. citizens. From conversations with other international students, this seems to be a common problem across many fields. My choice of aerospace engineering adds to this difficulty, as many aerospace companies simply aren’t allowed to hire non-American citizens. I can’t even apply for internships at companies like Boeing, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, etc. The same problem applies for aerospace research positions, as most require permanent residence or U.S. citizenship.

It would be difficult for me to pursue an aerospace career in America. Both my advisor and the Career Center suggested I look into a different industry if I wanted to stay here. But I chose aerospace engineering because there is nothing else I’d rather be doing. Choosing an industry just to stay in the U.S. would feel like settling. I didn’t come this far to settle. Other countries have thriving aerospace companies, too. I don’t have to limit myself to one country. I could even work in Japan if I got over others’ perceptions of me.

I am no longer fixated on America. If I end up working in the U.S. after graduation, great. If not, that’s okay too.

Yuko Inoue is a sophomore in Farley Hall, but you’ll most likely find her in the engineering library because she lives there. In her free time she enjoys playing the violin and taking pictures of squirrels with pastries. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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