On Spontaneity (or why I have so many folders)

This evening, my friend Çağla and I were at Kramer’s (formerly known as Kramerbooks and Afterwards) in Dupont Circle, and she mentioned that she loves my Instagram stories and that I should consider writing more about my life as an immigrant and a student in the United States. So here it is, my thoughts for your reading pleasure.

We spoke about several things, but the one that really hit the spot this evening was the seeming lack of spontaneity in our lives. Now, I’m not saying I’m not a spontaneous person, I do occasionally leave the house to get a coffee and end up getting a coffee, muffins, donuts, and a limited edition reusable coffee cup. I do make decisions on whim, and I am able to modify plans. But those things are sort of the moment, and the stakes are pretty low (or high if you ask my bank account, but thankfully it never talks back). In almost every other aspect of my life, I am planning five steps ahead and it is a uniquely learned behavior.

My first memory of thinking forward was when I had to go with my father to a government office in India to get some form signed, I don’t recall the exact details. However, I do remember watching him put together a thick folder of documents to make sure we got what we needed in one trip. I remember standing in line for hours to get my first passport made, and watching people leave because they did not have the one document that was absolutely needed (or perhaps not, but bureaucracy never plays a fair game). Meanwhile, my mother had meticulously planned everything for days so we could get it done in one go. You get the idea, if you don’t plan five steps ahead and literally predict what could go wrong, you’re in for a rough time.

Then I left home and started travelling alone, and confronted a new reality. Visas. Everyone needs one at some point, but the experience is markedly different depending on your passport. So while friends of mine from the US, UK or Germany can glide through immigration checkpoints, I have to start thinking weeks in advance and collect the documents I need to get the visa in time. Sometimes I can get it on arrival at the airport, but most of the time I need to go the embassy in person and apply. Here’s a funny (sad) story: a couple years ago my partner (who has an American passport) and I planned a longer layover in Bangkok on the way back from a holiday in Cambodia, and we basically wanted to shop and have a merry time before we went back to Myanmar (where we worked and lived at the time). We arrive at BKK and go our separate ways — he goes directly to immigration because he doesn’t need a visa to enter Thailand, and I proceed to the visa on arrival section. At that point, I’d been through the process several times and knew what to expect but the officer refused to give me a visa because I already had a connecting flight booked for the same day. Meanwhile, my partner was already out and waiting for me. He basically had to enter again and the immigration people got a bit suspicious of him — but I was stuck inside and positively shaken by the experience.

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Anyway, the point is that no matter how much I plan, things do sometimes fall apart. Here in the United States, any interaction with bureaucracy — the MVA, Social Security, Wells Fargo, IRS — has resulted in a different folder full of documents to prove why I am here. I can’t just file my taxes at the last minute obviously, because I have to file a paper return as a “non-resident alien” and it takes a few days to reach the IRS and then 8 weeks to process. In the beginning of February, I am already done with my taxes while my American friends haven’t even thought about it. You might say, such planning is needed no matter your immigration status, but I’ve done it for so long, in so many different countries, that now I plan my metro trips too. I have a folder on my computer for each family member, because there are subtle differences in the documents they need to show when they’re visiting me. I have a folder for all my financial bank statements, for my school documents, for my medical appointments. It’s the only form of control I have on certain days, and I take joy in my organization skills, that were born not out of a love for organizing, but a love for general sanity.

As a doctoral student, there are several things I cannot do or have to work around — imagine a straight line for some, and zig zag dotted line for me because that’s how life feels sometimes. You’re travelling in one direction, and boom! Have to change paths, almost overnight. Having a Plan A, B, C… is totally normal for people who share this experience with me. I think a lot of people woke up to this reality in June 2020 when the DHS told international students to leave the country if classes are all online, and many of us were ready with our bags. I had a storage unit reserved in case I had to leave, I made arrangements with my landlady even. I was thinking five steps ahead, and believe me, it’s exhausting. But I have to do it.

A student visa comes with an expiration date, and so I must plan my academic life too. I have to start field work this summer, earlier than most of my colleagues because I want to be done within my visa period and not have to undertake an expensive extension or renewal. I might have to do that anyway. I have to plan for that eventuality NOW, and still allow space for spontaneous turns. Here’s the thing — I wish I could be the “figure it out later” person, but the luxury of time is an expensive one for most immigrants. Not just in terms of money, but the memories we lose not seeing our families, not being able to afford a plane ticket home, not watching our siblings graduate or friends get married. Not being around as our parents get old because they worked so hard to get us to where we are today, and they don’t want us to look back. It’s hard to be spontaneous when the battle is between the relationships you’ve left behind and the familial hard work that has gone into making us who we are today.

For more casual rants, find me on Instagram @shagunrgupta or Twitter @shagunrgupta