I Am 100% On Pilgrimage {Jen}

100% is a guest post series focusing on multicultural identity and the unique journey of connecting with more than one culture. To share your story, click here.

I live and work in a squatter camp in Johannesburg, South Africa, as a missionary with Servant Partners. The squatter camp community I live in is approximately a square kilometer of land that contains somewhere between 50 to 100 thousand people of various South African ethnic groups—Tswanas, Sothos, Vendas, Zulus, Xhosas—and me, the one lone Korean-American. 

The other day, one of my teammates made the comment that he most enjoys walking through the squatter camp on the weekends, when the community is at its liveliest. Men sit outside their homes, talking and drinking beer, children run up and down the streets playing games, and there is always music emanating from competing sound systems, just houses apart from each other. 

In truth, though, weekends can sometimes be the worst for me. On any given day, I can expect to be “proposed” to multiple times a day as I walk from my house to just about anywhere else in the community. And by “proposed,” I mean more or less all of what might come to mind—professions of love and affection, invitations into (un)holy matrimony, and everything in between. 

And if I’m not being proposed to, I’m being called “China” (or having fake, vaguely Chinese-sounding gibberish shouted at me) or some other word that means, more or less, “whitey.” On the weekends, when more people are out and about, these verbal affronts tend to be even more frequent, and fueled by alcohol and group-think, louder and more offensive. 

As a Korean-American, I realize that I respond more negatively to being considered a “China” than to being considered white. I think I don’t mind being a whitey because I associate it with the color of my skin (as in, it IS lighter/whiter than my neighbors’) and the privilege that comes with it, which I don’t deny. 

But there is something about being called “China” that stirs up such a feeling of rage that while on my better days, I can politely (but generally unsmilingly) say, “I’m not a China,” I won’t tell you what I do on my worse days. I think, at some core level, being called “China” frustrates me so much because it forces me to confront the dissonance I feel with my own identity. 

I recently returned home to the States for an extended trip of four months. It’s the longest stretch of time I’ve been back in America since moving to South Africa, a few years ago, so I had time enough to settle back in and try to get back into some of my old rhythms. 

As part of this effort, I tried to explain to my friends what my life in South Africa is like, how some of my ways of thinking and acting have changed, especially how my relationship with God has changed. And though my friends could appreciate a lot of what I was telling them about, in all honesty, there is a very big part my life here that they are not able to understand because they have never experienced it. 

And now, I’m back in South Africa, back in a squatter camp, back being the only Korean-American within 1000 km (probably an exaggeration, but more or less accurate enough for my purposes), living my weird little life here. My friends are happy to see me again, and it has been lovely to be back and to see them again. But at the same time, when they ask me how home was, it is difficult to explain how different my life in Los Angeles is from life in Johannesburg. 

And then I realize even more strongly that while home was nice, it was not particularly home, either. I have always felt that home was where the people who knew me best were. But as I displace myself from comfortable environments, as I “incarnate” myself here, I feel more and more that there is no one who knows me “best” other than God, my only and constant companion. 

I am a second-generation Korean-American, born and raised in Hawaii, who now lives in a squatter camp in Johannesburg, South Africa. That was how I originally planned to title this post, because I feel I am 100% all of those words up there. But maybe greater than the reality that I am any of those words is the other reality: that in the final analysis, none of those words really matter. 

They represent elements of my identity that wax and wane in importance, but don’t tell the story of where I really am on my journey to walk with God, or where I am going with him. And so it is God, who knows me best, who is also where my home is, and where my identity lies.

Jen Chi Lee is on a journey with Jesus. For now, her pilgrimage takes her, as a missionary with Servant Partners, to live and work in an informal settlement community northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. Read more at her blog or connect on Twitter (@jenchilee) or email: jenchilee [at] servantpartners.org.

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A Welcome As Warm As A Casserole

The last couple of weeks, our family has been visiting a Spanish-speaking church in the city.

A few months ago, Billy stopped being a Bimbo, and I began to point out that his connection with other Latinos was disappearing. I have learned from past experience the importance of those spaces where he can relax in the culture and the language.

Around the same time, I was listening to someone else mention how their child is usually the only one of her ethnicity in a group of kids. Suddenly, I was convicted. 

Ella is getting to the age where she is making friends and talks about them (constantly!). None are Latino. I love all her little comrades, but I hope that she can also know other Latino kids in her circle as she grows up.

So we decided to again explore the possibility of a Latino church.

We’ve gone back and forth over the years about church. We feel like one of us always has to fully sacrifice worshiping and building community in our native language, and that is such a challenge when it comes to spirituality. But I was willing to give it another shot, so off we went.

Immediately upon arriving, I could sense Billy’s joy as the warm greetings poured in. He has always struggled with what feels to him like coldness in the way Americans barely, or not at all, acknowledge others in social settings, especially strangers.

Not here. In fact, we’d been there less than ten minutes before a woman I’d never met before was rubbing my pregnant belly. Between that and her asking me questions in Spanish with me trying quickly to translate and respond (I’m super out of practice!), I must have looked like a deer in headlights.

After she walked away, Billy leaned over to me. “We’re not in an American church anymore!” he announced gleefully. Then he nodded to the back of the room, “There’s a corner, would you like to go hide in it?” Awesome. 

It may be true that I have been conditioned to ease into new social settings, which may possibly be interpreted by my Latino husband that I’m shy and rude. But he knows that’s not the truth, and I am getting better at embracing the culture of the warm welcome (and good-bye). I actually really do believe it is a practice I should incorporate more.

As far as the Spanish church, it was a pleasant surprise. With a high population of second generation immigrants, nearly everyone we met also spoke English. The sermon translation was one of the best I’ve heard in my years of wearing headphones during a service. And several of the worship songs were sung in both English and Spanish. 

So we will continue to visit, and I am excited about getting to know others in the church better. After all, I’ve been kissed and had my belly rubbed… so I’d love to learn some names…

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Spanish Revolution

So here’s what’s going on in my house: 

Scene 1 

Gabriella: What is this, Papa? (Pointing to my clothes on the chair… she’s a total stickler for people not putting things away!)

Billy: Es el vestido de mama. (It’s mama’s dress.)

Gabriella: NO VESTIDO… it’s DRESS, Papa!

Scene 2 

Billy: Que color es esto? (What color is this?)

Gabriella: (silence)

Billy: Es morado.

Gabriella: No, Papa, PURPLE!

She is emphatic in her corrections of what she seems to perceive as Billy’s poor English. It’s actually quite incredible to realize she has the ability to translate everything he’s saying.

But still, it's disheartening that she IS translating everything and attempting to correct him rather than participate in the Spanish conversation.

In fact, the other day, she even started referring to her beloved pepe as a “passy.” I didn’t even know she knew the English word for pacifier since we have always called hers pepe. But then she got angry at us both and was shouting, “NO… PASSY!” (Read: “C’mon people, what is your problem????)

Nothing I have read on raising bilingual kids has ever mentioned the correction and translation of one parent. I fully expected her to respond to Billy’s Spanish in English… that seems to be a pretty common issue among bilingual families.

But ever the innovator… Ella has entered territory about which I know nothing. So I’m putting our experience out there, wondering if any other families have watched this type of interaction occur?

Like I mentioned, the cool thing about it all is that we are able to see that the vocabulary is inside that little mind of hers. One day I trust it will all come spilling out. But in the meantime, we are in the midst of revolution!

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Time Is Tickin' Away

It’s been birthday palooza around these parts. After loading up on frijoles, chicken, pineapples, avocados and more onions than one household should contain… Billy began cooking for nearly two days straight. Then he rocked the socks off some traditional tacos and his own homemade salsas.

But even though it’s his birthday, I won’t talk about how I know he’s getting older. I will simply say that I have come to the shocking realization that I am.

Actually, I’ve been looking forward to becoming old as long as I can remember. First it was the typical stuff like learning to drive a car and being able to “do whatever I want” (which still hasn’t ever really seemed to materialize, but whatever…)

Then I became uniquely eager to donate blood at age 17 and drive a 15-passenger van at 25. I don’t know why, but I was way more excited than the average person about these milestones.

But really, my desire to age hasn’t waned. I looked forward to my 30’s because I thought people might start taking me seriously (also yet to really materialize, but who knows…). But I also look forward to that glorious day when I can say whatever I want and people will just laugh and shake their heads. “That Sarah. She’s so old,” they’ll say.

However, aging is not really going as expected. In fact, I recently had three startling revelations that I’m aging: 

I found myself not changing the station when a varicose vein treatment commercial came on. In fact, I was listening intently thinking, “Hmmm… younger looking legs?”

I was certain I had behind-the-knee cancer when I first discovered the squishy lump. I was both relieved and horrified when my midwife barely looked up and said, “Oh, that’s just a vericose vein. It may go away after the baby’s born. Then again, it may not!” she told me cheerfully. 

I turned down Chick-fil-A because we had plans after dinner. Basically, no matter how much I like the original chicken sandwich, my body simply can’t process all that salty, processed goodness like it used to. I eat my nuggets and then I really need a nap. 

The eyes are the first to go. I have had 20/15 vision for as long as I can remember. I also hadn’t had an eye test in as long as I can remember. But hey, I don’t have problems, so why go looking for trouble?

Well, because I discovered I have vision insurance that I’ve never used, so I thought, “Why not?” After all, I do gaze at a computer screen for an obscene number of hours a day. It’d be good to check in with my eyes.

I have rarely experienced the vulnerability of being asked to read a simple string of letters and seeing only blurry spots. I was saying things, but she didn’t confirm if I was correct or not. All I know is, in the end, I don’t yet need glasses, but my vision is no longer 20/15.

I guess the good news is I won’t be able to see my non-young looking legs in coming days. And thankfully, it seems my friends and family are aging with me, so it should all work out.

Do you ever notice that you’re getting older? What gave it away? Oh, and did you or did you not catch the dctalk shout out in the title?

P.S. Curious how the cake turned out? Here's a photo. Please ignore the rogue strawberries sliding down into the moat of jam and icing. I kept removing them from the edges and more just kept sliding off. But it was tasty! (And that's what counts, right?) Thanks for all your suggestions and tips! 


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I Am 100% Ouseph {Jenny}

100% is a guest post series focusing on multicultural identity and the unique journey of connecting with more than one culture. To share your story, click here.

I will list couple of the reasons why I appreciate my dad and why he has been crucial and shaped my multicultural identity living in America. 

I get most of these “skills” and habits from my dad, and I am quite proud of them. I didn’t spend most of my childhood with my dad, but for a number of years I did, and I learned a lot. 


Eating At Home

I learned that eating out is not his favorite thing. I was never a fan of this because, I mean seriously, why not try something new? But he didn’t want to “waste” money when we could eat a delicious Indian meal at home.

His theory is: why spend money at restaurants where we don’t know where the food comes from? He would say, “They probably don’t even wash their hands." I always thought this was hilarious, but very thoughtful. 

But let me tell you - after living in the South (North Carolina) for the past 12 years or so, if someone buys him some fried chicken, he WILL eat it. 

As a family, we rarely eat out. When I was younger, he had a large round steel plate that I still remember we used to sit around the plate and eat from the same plate (of course, with our fingers).


He loves to garden. Every summer he has a garden with unlimited supply of vegetables that he gives away to neighbors and friends. 

He freezes the left over vegetables for winter time. He has things that grow in our backyard that you can’t even get in grocery stores here. 

During the summer months, most of his time at home is spent outside at the garden. I always hated it when I was living at home because he used to ask us to go help him, but now I am so grateful for it. 

Incorporating India

My dad does things around the house like he is living in India. He reads several different newspapers and listens to news channels from India and talks about it even if no one else really cares. 

But now I appreciate it because we are aware of things going on back home. 

He also loves watching Indian movies - only the ones to which he can relate or that “make sense.” He will say that it is all “nonsense” if it some violent movie that he doesn’t care for.


He always wanted us to call him achachen instead of dad, which is what he called his dad.

It is really interesting to me because normally, you would call an uncle or older brother achachen. Even Indians look at us funny when we call him that because most of the time in India you call your dad Appa, Pappa, Dad, Pappaji, etc. 

He doesn’t have an explanation for this, but that is what he prefers, and I love it. 

How did this impact my identity? It is unique - it has meaning in my dad’s and my heart which no one else will understand, and that is okay. I learned to hold onto what is true to self and not change it because of circumstances. 


This last one I give credit to both my parents. If we were at home, we had to speak in Malayalam (my mother tongue).

They have not been so strict these recent years, but they really wanted us to not forget the language. I am so grateful for it because a lot of Indians move to America and forget their language. 

Now a days it is mixed with Malayalam and English, but all three of us (my sisters and I) are still fluent. 

I’m sure I have many more, but these are some of the things I am grateful for which have shaped me. And this is who I am.

Jenny Ouseph has her roots in India, but relocated to Charlotte, NC in 2002 with her parents and two sisters. She received an education degree at Central Piedmont. She participated in Mission Year (10-11) and served as an alum intern in Houston, Texas. She now works as a recruiter. Jenny enjoys music, books, coffee shops, the outdoors and random adventures. Follow Jenny on Twitter.

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When the Cake Is Too Short

Next weekend is Billy’s birthday. It’s not a major milestone or anything, but we’ve been preparing for weeks. The bounce house has been secured. Corn hole sets requested. The lawn mowed and the fire pit prepared.

Billy has been preparing the menu as he plans to make his famous traditional tacos. Well... famous might be an exaggeration, but he did used to own a taco cart in Guatemala. He’d set himself up on the college campus and catch all the late-night crowd coming out of class or the library.

He’s also planning on frijoles volteados (Yum! My favorite… the Guatemalan refried black beans.) And I’m pushing for him to make guacamole because his homemade is just so tasty.  

So I need to deal with the cake. This is where I need your help.

Our first married celebration of Billy’s birthday, I knew he loved strawberry cake. So I bought some fresh strawberries, some shortcake, and some whipped cream. When I served it to him and his family, you can imagine my newlywed disappointment when they all asked me, “What is this?”

It went from awkward to worse when I explained strawberry shortcake and then took a bite to discover the shortbread was stale. (One of the real frustrations of the lower quality food often sold at urban grocery stores.)

So it turns out that Billy loves strawberry cake , which I have since learned is different than strawberry shortcake. I don’t know that this is truly a cultural difference as much as a childhood difference.

But I’m open to suggestions. This is by no means a cooking blog… mainly because all I have to contribute to that conversation is how to preheat an over for frozen pizza. But I’d love any strawberry cake recipies you’ve tried. I gotta make one this weekend, friends!

Also, I’d love to know your sweet gestures (or those gone awry) for a loved one!

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The Practice of Cross-Cultural Hospitality

When God’s children are in need, be the one to help them out. And get into the habit of inviting guests home for dinner or, if they need lodging, for the night. 
Romans 12:13

Photo credit: Kate Ambrose Pollard

Reading this verse during the I Was A Stranger Challenge, I was reminded of something else I've read. “According to the Billy Graham Center, less than one in ten immigrants will ever be welcomed into the home of an American.” This startling fact that has been haunting me for months.

In conversation with a friend, she made a comment that has also stuck with me. She wondered how many Christians have actually been inside the home of anyone of a different race… immigrant or not.

I can’t stop thinking about these observations.

And then part of the verse jumped out at me: get into the habit of inviting guests home for dinner.

I started thinking about how we may quietly steer clear of cross-cultural relationships because we’re afraid, nervousness of doing “the wrong thing,” or it just seems more complicated. What if they don’t like my food? What if they judge my lifestyle or it makes them uncomfortable? What if… What if… What if…

It may seem easier to simply extend our invitations to people who we understand… who are like us.

I was reminded of one of my first summers living in an urban, African American neighborhood. At a barbeque, a little girl asked me to help her with her hair. I treated it like I do my own. When a big clump of hair fell out of her ponytail onto the ground, I panicked!

She assured me, “It’s just weave!” But I really didn’t know exactly what that meant. And I didn’t know if weave was re-useable… So I made this little girl stuff it in the pocket of her shorts to take home to her mom.

Now I laugh at the ridiculousness of this encounter because I’m pretty sure  I should have just thrown it away. Although if I’m honest, I still don’t really know. However, this incident would not be my last encounter with weave.

A couple years later, I entered my friend’s dorm room and found her mom taking out microbraids. I offered to help in the painstakingly tedious process. As I combed out the first miniature braid, I was left holding a handful of weave. This time, I did not panic. (I may have asked tentatively… “This is not your hair… right?”)

Experience. Practice. Get into the habit of.

I’m not suggesting that you experiment with cross-cultural relationships, treating people like projects or asking a bunch of cultural questions that you’ve been wondering to someone who is basically a complete stranger. No.

Rather, I’m saying get into the habit of initiating relationships with people that are different than you. Treat them with respect. Listen to what they say. And you will naturally learn so much.

I think for me language has been the biggest challenge. As you might expect, I find myself in all-Spanish environments semi-regularly. Whether its with family, Billy’s co-workers or at the soccer field, I hate feeling like I’m perceived as quiet and serious because I don’t talk much and just nod and smile.

At the same time, the more often this scenario has happened, the less awkward I feel. I have become more relaxed and can rest in the moment, allowing language to swirl around me. I don’t need to know what’s happening every moment. I can just enjoying being with others. (And when I feel brave, I can bust out my español.)

I know these relationships have brought me more new experiences and laughter than discomfort. I refused to eat guacamole due to texture until Billy made some at home and begged me to try… game changer! I was told how to properly eat with my hands by a woman from India. And I even sang the national anthem of France (in French) with Billy’s Guatemalan grandmother…

It may not become habit right away. But with practice, you will grow in your understanding of cultures and in your depth of relationships. It is well worth any initial nervousness or misunderstanding or confusion.

And eventually, whatever is your equivalent of “stray weave” won’t cause you to panic.

Have you been in the home of someone of a different background? Have you invited someone into your home? Have you found cross-cultural relationships becoming easier with practice?

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Bilingual Barnyard [Video Post]

An amazing percentage of childhood seems to involve the study of barnyard animal sounds. Clearly... this is information every urban toddler needs to know. Personally, I think she'd benefit from learning to distinguish between a car alarm and an ambulance siren, but then again, this sentiment probably explains why no one is banging down my door to write a children's book...

After my recent phonetic spellings of accents, I decided this conversation really necessitated an audio component. So I roped Billy into our second video post (see our first here). Our bilingual parenting has revealed that our Spanish and English barnyard animals speak different languages, too!

Technical note: Sorry about the sporadic blurriness. I don't know... maybe the camera was trying to focus on our awesome studio-esque Atlanta backdrop.

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Waiting Out the Permanent Bar: A Family's View from Mexico

A friend shared Heather's story with me, and I soon contacted her to ask if I could post it here. She is also an American citizen who married an undocumented immigrant, but her circumstances played out very differently than mine. I often mention in our immigration story that everything fell into place in ways that are not always true for other couples. While we did have a scare about waiting out the permanent bar, many families find themselves in exactly Heather's situation. I hope you appreciate her important story!

I can still recall the moment I thought I was going to be able to separate my love life from immigration issues. Horacio and I had just started dating, thanks to being introduced to each other by a Colombian couple who were our mutual friends. It was late afternoon and he and I were packing up our picnic lunch at a lake north of Atlanta.

As we were getting in his truck, he pulled out his wallet. I think I asked to see his driver’s license photo, which is a pretty innocent (though sometime embarrassing) question among friends with legal immigration status. I guiltily breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled out a valid, current Georgia driver’s license.

Don’t get me wrong—I was very interested in him and would have been equally interested had he been unable to produce a valid driver’s license. But possession of a driver’s license surely meant some sort of legal status. Having just finished a year of volunteer work for a nonprofit immigration legal aid agency, and still immersed in immigrant and refugee communities as an elementary school teacher, I knew that meant dating this guy was going to be, shall we say, less…complicated.

However, the ensuing conversations during the next minutes and then weeks and finally months led to more details of Horacio’s immigration status. He had once had a tourist visa, but did not have current legal status to be in the States, much less work. He had a couple illegal entries, and from there I started seriously wondering about his possibilities to one day adjust status and become a permanent resident in the States.

I began to have a notion that our wonderfully blossoming relationship was at some point going to get…uncomfortably complicated.

A Mixed-Status Love Story 

A year and half after that date at the lake when I popped the driver’s license question, we decided to get married. Along with that decision came the necessity of officially knowing how Horacio’s immigration status would change, or not, with our pending marriage.

I checked in with nonprofit immigration law friends to get a recommendation for the best private immigration lawyer in town, hoping for the best. After our consultation and review of Horacio’s immigration documents, we were greeted with the news—we faced a permanent bar to Horacio living in the country legally, and would have to spend 10 years outside the United States before we could even apply for a waiver. Oh dear.

We continued on with our wedding plans, and conversations about wedding plans often turned into discussions about how best to deal with our immigration issues. We decided we were definitely going to move to Mexico and possibly a third country soon in order to start the clock on the 10-year wait, hoping to be able to come back to the States sooner than later.

It was a painful decision. We were both regularly involved in our respective church communities, we had strong emotional ties to two dear groups of friends that met on a weekly basis, I loved my job as a first grade teacher at an international school, and we spent major holidays with my family. However, it was one of those few decisions in life that are starkly black and white.

If we stayed in the States, my husband had no chance of legal status and in fact, had a chance of being deported. If we moved abroad, at least the clock would start ticking down to the day when we could return to the only life we knew as a couple.

We ended up choosing to wait until about a year after we had married, in order to save up money and avoid inflicting major life changes upon ourselves in addition to adjusting to married life. I am not sure which date is seared more deeply in my mind … July 2005 when we tied the knot or October 2006 when we crossed into Mexico and began the real journey that has tested how strong that knot is.

I remember driving across the bridge from Texas into Mexico, life suddenly switching to slow motion, and thinking everything about us changes now. Everything about us as a couple is suddenly … incredibly complicated.

Children and Choices 

Over the past six and a half years I have been able to get to know Horacio’s family better. We have been able to celebrate his nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays and baptisms, accompany his parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, and learn more about the culture and customs of Horacio’s home country. However, for every birthday celebrated here in Mexico there is one I miss in the States, and every wedding here is a wedding I was unable to attend in the States.

Even when we baptized our first son, none of my family was able to attend, and our son’s godparents chose to risk their health and fly down from Atlanta during the H1N1 flu outbreak in order to accompany us. In fact, it is since becoming parents that Horacio’s lack of legal remedy is more painful.

Our four-year-old can recite on demand the explanation that “Daddy doesn’t have a United States passport or a special card or paper that will let him into the United States.” Some days, he says he is going to make his daddy a special paper so that he can travel with us. If only it were that simple.

Every summer I have to choose to either take our sons to visit my parents, siblings, and grandmother, or celebrate my husband’s birthday. This may not sound like a big deal, but I haven’t celebrated my husband’s birthday in person since 2008. My son has had to celebrate every one of his dad’s birthdays on Skype.

Every Christmas we have to decide whether to spend it with Horacio and his family or with my family in the States, and every December it’s a struggle to make that decision. With two kids now, the decision is made by financial needs, and more often than not, we stay in Mexico.

I have not celebrated Thanksgiving with my family since 2005, and my children have yet to have a real Thanksgiving. Holidays are always a painful issue when separation of any sort is involved. However, holidays are only a part of the larger culture that my sons are missing.

I realize this more with my older son in random comments he makes. One day he responded to me in Spanish, and I told him to please talk to me in English. He replied, “But Mommy, Spanish is easier for me.” While I am thrilled to have a bilingual child, I sometimes worry about how long that will last. Despite the fact that I speak only English to him, I am the only native speaker he talks with.

Whenever there is a soccer game on TV, he always wants to make sure he is cheering for the Mexican side. While this may be cute, it does tell me that he does not feel like he is from the United States, which is perfectly normal. He does not live there, and two or three weeks a year is not going to make him feel American.

Four More Years

On rough days, I daydream about moving back north with our two kids and working for a year or so. Then I snap back to reality and chide myself for even considering separating our sons from their dad for more than a summer vacation, shocked that I would even allow myself to ponder a long distance relationship with a husband I love deeply and enjoy spending time with on a daily basis.

There is only one situation in which long distance marriage would ever be an option for us, and that relates to the issue of personal security. It is no secret that Mexico is plagued by drug violence and organized crime. I perhaps sugarcoat news or avoid sharing it altogether in order not to worry family and friends back home.

However, Horacio and I have a clearly laid out “Plan B.” Should violence escalate to the point in which our children’s lives are clearly in danger, I would immediately move back to the States with our sons and we would begin to work on a third country to meet in. Fortunately, we are not at that point yet, but there are an alarming number of precautions we now take.

When we travel by car the six hours to Horacio’s parents and sisters’ homes, we only travel during the day and there are certain rest stops we no longer break at because of their reputation. Just two years ago, my sister-in-law and her family were carjacked, and we are constantly aware that this is a possibility. Whenever we travel more than an hour from our home, I always carry my passport and our sons’ passports, just in case.

In public places, I keep my son close by, morbidly worrying about kidnapping. When we are at my in-laws’ home over holidays, we rarely leave their house, and for good reason. There was a shoot out in broad day light at a nearby grocery store the weekend before Christmas. Two days before Christmas, mass at the church one block from my in-laws house was canceled because the priest had been assaulted and carjacked. The priest.

I struggle a lot with anger. Why should I have to decide between my children’s personal safety and keeping my family together? Shouldn’t I be able to live with my husband, to keep my children with their loving father, but also be able to live in my home country and culture? Shouldn’t my children be able to grow up close to my family and know my culture as well without being separated from their father?

If the permanent bar were struck down, we would be the first in line to adjust my husband’s status and return to the life that we left in the States over six years ago.

In my Facebook status update last fall, I depressingly wrote, “Six down, four more to go.” I was surprised to see the number of people who understood the reference. With immigration reform in the news, I hope more of the public could understand such a post.

Keeping families together should not be this painfully complicated. It should not be about counting down the years, but rather, as soon as possible, families like mine should able to announce, “We’re coming home—all four of us—together!”

Heather Ruark is currently a teacher at a bilingual elementary school in Queretaro, Mexico.

This story was originally posted on National Immigrant Justice Center. View it here

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A Life with Subtitles. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.