Photo by Sarah Whiting
Photo by Sarah Whiting

Part 1: The Eyes That See Me 

There is a collection of eyes in every city and in every culture around the world. How do they look at you?

Walking along the streets of Guangzhou, China, as a white, trans lesbian, and far too masculine for heteronormative standards, I got used to an array of looks, stares, and furtive glances. When I took to the countryside, eyeballs slapped on me like bumper stickers. I got used to it after a while. In many cases, I was quite literally the first non-Chinese person they had ever seen.  

I was at least a relatively approachable foreigner for many, which helped. Mothers and fathers would urge their children to practice their English with me. Babies would be terrified until about 10 minutes later, at which point I became unceasingly interesting to them. Older generations would often give me the evil eye, at least until I started speaking some Chinese with them. Then they were full of smiles and offers for tea and dinner. 

In the city I was a little more commonplace, which meant I got eyes, but more out of friendly curiosity. After a while, locals started to ask me for directions in Chinese. I guess I had started to move through crowds with the same ambivalent urgency, started to dress like an annoyed business person struggling to make a living, or had just stopped staring at all the people staring at me.

Expats, though, were another matter. In small towns, they were a life preserver in stormy waters. You did not let go of another foreign face when you met one. But the larger the city, and the longer the foreigner’s time locally, the more that desperation for connection faded to friendly nods, then outright aversion. We often simply wanted to blend in — not associate with foreigners who made us stand out.  

After 10 years in China, I lived the best of both worlds. Locals would mostly dismiss me as an ignorant, spoiled American — until I struck up a conversation in Mandarin or broken Cantonese about politics, demographics, economics, or family. Then I quickly made friends with those who were appreciative of my unique background. I had a platter full of diverse and rich relationships.    


Part 2: Loving Across Borders 

After graduation from university, I had given myself a year to work abroad. Yet somehow my career took an unexpected with the person I love. “ upswing.

Years into adding to China’s GDP, I met her. Suddenly, I had no reason to leave. Years passed and we managed to get past the “I don’t see how we could possibly be going in the same direction” conversations, and invest a bit of faith in what we had. I met her family. Although I have no Y chromosome — and thus a limited earning power and traditional value that her family expects — they liked me. 

I struggled to find meaning in my career; China would not officiate our relationship, and I had no idea what a future together would look like — yet when she asked me to marry her I said yes.

Eventually, she told me she was willing to come to my country, leaving everyone and everything she’s ever known. I suppressed the urge to break up with her in order to keep from destroying her life. I found the will to believe in the life we could build on another continent. We started planning.

We worked out a timeline that involved me leaving years before her, so that I could get situated and help her land softly in the United States. We knew that we would not be together for a very long time. The pain and loneliness was nearly crippling. Skype calls barely kept me sane.

 I began work on the fiancée visa application, trying to ignore the headlines of immigrants being deported, children being separated, and a country swept into a flurry of xenophobic frenzy. I produced a 60-page document detailing and providing evidence for our relationship, arguing that I really, really love her and am not trying to defraud the government.  

I submitted the application and waited, and waited. I read that there were talks of revoking visas for students from her country, of thousands of DREAMers getting lost in the system, of millions of voters who would not trust my fiancée simply because she wasn’t born here.  

One day, she visited. The whole day she was in transit, I held my breath because it would take only one overzealous immigration officer to send her back as a flight risk. I told myself that precedent is on our side. But still, I doubted and worried. At last she arrived, and it all seemed like a dream. 

For two weeks I showed her the awesome things about my hometown, hoping she either wouldn’t notice, or would forgive, the violence against immigrants in the news, the current disarray of our political system, the rising cost of living, and the copious supply of ignorant people. I hoped she would look at my home and believe it was a good place for an immigrant to start again, when I didn’t believe it myself. I quelled the guilt I felt at bringing her into this incredibly difficult life path. I was quiet when she told me that it was her choice to make. 




Part 3: The Eyes I See With 

She flew back to her country, and I resumed waiting. A legal friend consoled me, saying I have a strong case and probably would only need to wait another half year before the visa was approved. My friend told me this with heavy bags under her eyes from fighting losing battles for the immigrant families she labors to keep together in this country.  

After waiting six months, my petition for a K1 visa application was approved — the first of several hoops in the larger process of getting my partner into the U.S. Next up: several more months waiting for an interview in Hong Kong. It was a major victory and I’m grateful. But there is still so much that can go wrong before this is over. I continue to watch the news and the political climate closely.

I hear friends and family accuse both legal and undocumented immigrants of freeloading off our tax dollars, of stealing our jobs, and of polluting our values.  I see our leaders defend actions that penalize and imprison large numbers of vulnerable migrants who seek a better life. I find it difficult to see the world as I once did. 

I wrote this essay, hoping that I can help someone understand, even a little bit, what it’s like to be an immigrant in this country, or to love someone from another country.  What does it feel like to be applying for a fiancée visa for my Chinese lesbian partner in this political environment? Damn scary. 

Yet, I know a U.S. citizen with a genuine relationship and a solid visa application has nothing to complain about in today’s immigration law climate. It is far from the unfathomable trauma of having your own children held in a separate facility. 

There is, however, at least one similarity: a stranger in a room gets to decide whether I am able to be with the person I love. 



Emeri Burks recently returned from a decade teaching and writing in China. She is working towards a Masters in Journalism from the University of Missouri – Columbia. She hopes to write about global awareness and social justice.