Thursday, October 29, 2015

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

If you didn't know, I absolutely love nature. Natural beauty makes me remember how small I am in comparison to the rest of the universe. And there are definitely some benefits to waking up really early. I usually get to enjoy beautiful sunrises but this morning I got a special treat. This morning when I went outside, I was able to see Mars and Venus beautifully lined up in the East sky.

I thought of the very popular saying 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus'. This is used to show just how different men and women are. And I'd agree that men and women are very different. But that's the beauty of life. God knew what He was doing when He created men and women to be so different. I'd hate to think what life in our apartment would be like if Mr Caramel and I had the same dispositions. We complement each other so well. When I'm nervous and worried, he's cool and calm. When he gets annoyed, I can say 'don't sweat the small stuff'. Venus on its own is beautiful. A glimpse of Mars on its own is a great sight. But when they line up, they're just stunning. And I like to think of men and women in the same way. On our own, we are works of art. But when men and women are paired up well and love and complement each other, we showcase the beauty and perfection of God's plan.

I also thought of my own marriage. Every now and again God gives me a little nudge to remind me that He's still in control (ok, it might be more of an anvil to the head because I'm stubborn). And I was reminded of that as I stared at Mars and Venus this morning. Mars and Venus can be anywhere from 77 million kilometers to 222 million kilometers apart. But every so often, God can align them and make them seem so close together. If God can seemingly ignore millions of kilometers and line up two planets, then why should I be surprised that God could bring Mr Caramel and I together? What's the Atlantic Ocean compared to the vastness of space? And if God can align planets and stars in complete perfection, obviously He is more than qualified to take control of my life.

How awesome is it that the same God who controls the immensity of the universe, controls our own minuscule lives? How humbling is it that God takes the time to create beings that are different enough to complete each other but not so different that we cannot meet? Thank you God for the cosmic reminder.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Journey from Non-immigrant to Illegal Immigrant to Permanent Legal Resident

Illegal immigrants have been prevalent in the news recently and I've been biding my time to write about this.

What comes to mind when you think of an illegal immigrant? A Mexican sneaking across the border? A wave of Syrian Muslims invading Europe? Latinos who refuse to learn English but take jobs from Americans and take advantage of the welfare system? Those are popular stereotypes of illegal immigrants. But just like any stereotype, they're not 100% accurate. You see, until yesterday, I was also an illegal immigrant. Or, if I was to use the more technical term, I was 'out of status'.

Let's explain what that means. I came into America quite legally. I entered at an airport with my shiny new student visa in my passport. At the time, the plan was to go to school, graduate as soon as possible and head back home to the familiarity and security of St Vincent. However, as usually happens when I make plans, God laughed. After I graduated, I applied for and was granted OPT (optional practical training). That meant that I was able to work for a year, while I was still on my student visa. During that year, I fell in love twice - with my job and with Mr Caramel. All of a sudden, it seemed that my life was now in America. My boss was kind enough to be willing to sponsor me for a work visa. However, due to all the technicalities and hoops of that process, my lawyer at the time told me that I didn't stand a chance. Meanwhile, I saw one of my very good friends shell out thousands of dollars to a top rate lawyer, go through the long process for a work visa and get denied. I started to get worried. My OPT was quickly running out.

By the time Mr Caramel and I were engaged, I had very little time left on my OPT. We knew we were going to get married but we also knew that once my OPT ran out, I would be out of status. We decided not to get a quick courtroom wedding for several reasons. We only plan on getting married once. So we wanted it to be a beautiful wedding. Also, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a courtroom wedding is not valid and we wanted to abide with the rules of the Church. Finally, we knew we loved each other and were going to get married but we didn't want anyone to say that I married him for my green card (more about that later). So we trusted God, planned our wedding and set a wedding date for almost 5 months after my OPT ran out.

And so, in the middle of the summer of 2014, my OPT card expired and I was officially 'out of status'. Or, an illegal immigrant. Life as an illegal immigrant was definitely not easy. My drivers' license expired and without legal status I could not renew it. So now I had a choice. Legally, I shouldn't be driving. But if I didn't drive, I couldn't work. If I couldn't work, we wouldn't be able to save up for the thousands of dollars required for my green card. So I continued driving. And literally every time I got in my car, I prayed. I prayed that I wouldn't get pulled over or get into any accidents. Because I would be in BIG trouble if I did. I continued paying taxes every month, knowing that I could never be a beneficiary of any form of government assistance if I wanted my green card.

Mr Caramel and I spent hundreds of dollars on lawyer consultation fees. All the lawyers wanted thousands of dollars to take our case - not including the other thousands of dollars that would be needed to apply for the green card. Mr Caramel and I simply did not have that kind of money and we knew it would take us quite a while to save up. We reached out to just about every kind of agency - Catholic Social Services, International House, etc. For one reason or another, they couldn't help us. Finally, I was flipping through the Catholic News Herald and came across a story in which the Latin American Coalition was able to help a man facing deportation. It was a long shot - I'm not Latino. But I figured, what was one more no? However, the very nice gentleman that I spoke to had once dated a Caribbean girl and agreed to help us. He put us in touch with a lawyer in Miami who would file our papers from there, for the low price of $1000. We still had to come up with the hundreds of dollars for the medical exam and the thousands for the application fees.

Mr Caramel and I scrimped and saved. We filled in piles of papers. I was questioned, injected and tested for the required medical examination. We collected documents on every aspect of our life. Then we said a prayer, crossed our fingers and submitted everything - including all our savings. And then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. And as much as I tried not to, I worried. Would I have to leave the country for my visa interview (read, more expense)? Would I get pulled over for something minor while I drove on my expired license? I had nightmares about being taken away from Mr Caramel. I obsessively checked my case status - Charlotte's office was backlogged for over five months.

And one day, out of the blue, right after our lawyer had said to expect to wait about five more months, our notice arrived in the mail. Our immigration interview was scheduled for October. And so began more collection of information. We had to collect any document or evidence that could show that we were really married and not committing marriage fraud. Yup, we had to prove to the US government that we were really married. On the day of our interview, yesterday, I was so nervous I was literally sick to my stomach. But fortunately, the interview was a lot less painful than I expected and I should get my green card in the mail just in time for our one year anniversary. What better anniversary gift is there? After about a year and a half as an illegal immigrant, I no longer have to worry about being separated from Mr Caramel. I can drive legally. I can travel. And I can silence all the persons who said or suggested that I got married for my green card.

I know that there are many persons who think that it's so easy to become a legal resident. Or think that all illegal immigrants are illegal because they want to be. But it is so difficult. It is expensive. It is time-consuming. It runs your nerves ragged. And there are no guarantees - so many people get denied. So the next time you might be tempted to make an off-the-cuff disparaging comment about 'those illegal immigrants', stop and think. The person sitting next to you in church. The neatly dressed person ahead of you in line at the bank. The person in the next office cubicle. They might also be 'out of status'.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Letter to my students at the start of a new school year

My Dear Students,

Tomorrow, you start a brand new school year. You're excited and I'm excited. My heart is full with so many emotions as I prepare to teach you for another year. I feel both honored and humbled by the opportunity to be part of your lives again.

You've helped me clean and organize the classroom. You've labelled and personalized your notebooks. I've watched you organize your pens and pencils. There was a general buzz of excitement as you tell me that you're looking forward to the new school year. You've told me about the subjects that you're most looking forward to: Spanish, History, Spelling and Science. And yes, we'll be learning all these things, and so much more. You'll learn about decimals, the Crusades, how to use a microscope and how to spell words like 'squeeze' and 'Avenue'.

But those aren't the things that I consider to be the most important parts of this year. I want you to learn to think for yourself. I want you to learn how to evaluate information and come to conclusions for yourselves. You'll see that I don't have all the answers - and that's okay. We can search for answers together. I hope you'll gain self-confidence, poise and maturity. I hope that your love for learning will increase and that you never lose that curiosity that sometimes makes my job a little harder. I want you to see yourselves the way I see you: adorable, intelligent students full of potential. I want you to know that you can do anything and everything you set your minds to.

I'll be hard on you this year - just as I am every year. I'll push you. I'll make you do things that you might not want to do. And there'll be times that I don't let you do things that you want to do. You'll write more. You'll spell more. You'll do more math. You'll read harder books. You'll have to think harder and work harder than you've ever done in your short school lives. I'm sure there'll be times when you get frustrated and when you'll frustrate me. And that's okay. Do you know why I'll push you? Because you are so smart. Because I know you have the ability to succeed. And because I would be doing you a huge disservice if I let you get lazy or to plateau. You deserve more than that from me. I'll give you my best and I won't let you do any less. So even though there'll be frustrations, maybe even some tears and days when I wonder 'where did I go wrong?', at the end of the day, I love you so much and I know you love me, so we'll be okay.

But we'll have fun too. Don't worry. This will be a fun year. We'll paint. We'll play games. We'll do experiments. We'll make messes. We'll laugh. Because learning should be fun. Perhaps, if I show you how much fun learning can be, you'll never want to stop learning. Also, I think learning should reflect real life. And life can be frustrating, messy and just plain hard. But it can also be full of wonder, fun and laughter.

My precious students, I hope that you'll learn a lot this year. I also know that I'll learn much from you too. You have the whole world at your feet. Your possibilities are endless. And I want to help you get one step closer to those dreams that you might not have even dreamed of yet.

Here's to another year. May it be our best year yet. So let's pick up the pens, pencils and markers. Let's crack open the text books and notebooks. And let's get to learning.

Your very excited Teacher.

Friday, August 21, 2015

I've Still Got A lot of Fight Left in Me

This week has been somewhat difficult for me emotionally. There are times that I get too into my head and can't find my way out. And this past week was one of those times. I had way too much on my mind, I was tired because I haven't been sleeping well. By this morning I was at my limit. I honestly didn't even want to get out of bed. But I did. And I had a song stuck in my head. It's one of the most popular songs of the summer 'Fight Song'. (If you haven't heard it yet, you should give it a listen.) Mr Caramel has this theory that the best solution for songs stuck in your head, is to actually listen to them. And that's what I did. And I'm glad I did.

It reminded me that even though I am so tired - physically and emotionally - I still have some fight left in me. I started thinking of all the things that I've fought for in my life. I've been fighting and struggling for so long. I fought to come to the U.S to go to college, when so many people said I couldn't. I sent out close to a hundred job applications before getting my dream job. I fought to marry Mr Caramel when some of the closest people in my life didn't approve (and still don't). But each time I fight and succeed, it makes the victory so much sweeter.

So I'm going to keep fighting because I have so many dreams that haven't been realized yet. I will take Mr Caramel to see the place where I grew up, even though it costs thousands of dollars. I will get my American Green Card, even though the American immigration process is costly, difficult and time-consuming. Mr Caramel and I will own a home of our own some day. One day, we'll have the life we're dreaming of - complete with kids, dog and porch swing. You know why? Because I'm still fighting. And the difference this time is that I have someone fighting with me. This is not to negate all the wonderful people who've supported me all along. But it's different having someone to actually fight with me, to believe in the same things that I do and to hold me at night when I'm ready to throw in the towel.

I believe in my dreams. Passionately. I've always gone after what I wanted with everything I had. And I'm not about to change that. So I'm going to fight. And keep fighting. And one day, my dreams will explode into reality.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Two Homes

Recently I confused poor Mr Caramel. Out of the blue, I said "I want to go home." What was confusing about this statement was that we were both sitting in our living room. No wonder the poor guy was confused. But I was referring to my first home - St Vincent.

You see, I'm quite homesick. I've been dreaming of St Vincent. I so badly want to take a trip home. I want to show Mr Caramel where I grew up. Take him to all my favorite spots. Let him see why St Vincent will always be home to me. In clarifying for Mr Caramel I realized that I have two places that I consider to be home, and probably always will. St Vincent will always be home. It was my first home and will forever hold a special place in my heart. But North Carolina is my current home. It's where my life is. So I've decided to list the things that I like about each of my homes.

Let's start with my current home - North Carolina:

  1. This is where my life is now: I have an amazing husband, a wonderful job and great friends.
  2. I love how many things there are to do in and around Charlotte. I can go to the ballet, to a musical, to any number of parks or museums. There are several movie theaters close by. And if I'm in the mood for it - the mall is always an option.
  3. I've come to like the distinct seasons. I enjoy seeing the differences as the year rolls through. Each season brings something new. Although, winter will always be my least favorite. I don't like the cold!
  4. When I have to shop - whether for clothes, school supplies, food or whatever - I enjoy the variety and relatively low prices that I just wouldn't be able to get in the Caribbean.
  5. I must admit, I've become a bit spoiled. I like the convenience of drive-through restaurants, self-checkouts, businesses that are open late and the ability to pay my bills and do almost everything online. No more standing in impossibly long lines at the bank on pay day.
  6. You can be more of an individual here. I am my own person. I am not defined as 'Ms So-and-so's daughter' or 'Mr X's grand-daughter'. In St Vincent, everyone knows everyone and their family. So it's sometimes hard to find your identity, separate from your family's. No one here has pre-conceived ideas for the person I should be because of my family.

Now let's move to St Vincent:

  1. I enjoy the weather back home. I never have to worry about temperatures in the 30s or 40s. St Vincent has two seasons: hot and wet or hot and dry. I miss that sometimes, especially in the middle of winter.
  2. People back home are so friendly. It used to annoy me sometimes. You simply cannot go anywhere without running into someone who knows you or your family. And when you're running errands, you're bound to run into someone you know who wants to talk forever and has to inquire about your mother, your sister, your aunt, your grandparents - your entire family! But now I miss that friendliness and the feeling of community. Here, you're just another face in a sea of people.
  3. I love the natural beauty of St Vincent. The simply gorgeous beaches with clear blue water. The green mountains. The stunning sunrises and sunsets. The tropical flowers and birds. Sitting out on the porch and looking at the sun go down over the sea and seeing the fireflies come out.
  4. St Vincent operates in a much more laid-back manner. There are no cars flying along highways at a gazillion miles an hour. Here, everyone seems to always be rushing. In St Vincent, it's not uncommon to hear about 'Vincy time'. In other words, if we're planning to be somewhere at 2pm Vincy time, it's probably going to be closer to 3pm. There are days here when the idea of speeding along the highway for 30 minutes to get to work just seems like the greatest challenge in the world.
  5. The culture. Oh the culture. I have no one to speak dialect with here. And if I say soca, someone will look at me as if I was speaking a foreign language. I miss the excitement and color of Carnival and Nine Mornings. At those times, it's like the very air is buzzing with the excitement of the people.
  6. Racism is not an issue. Growing up, racism was something you read about or saw in the news. Skin color was just a color, not something that defined a person. And no one bats an eye if two people with different complexions get married. Sadly, that is not the case here. And one day, when I have children, they'll have to deal with being bi-racial.
  7. The food. I'm going to make myself hungry just thinking about breadfruit, freshly made fruit juice, plumrose, well-cooked fish, rice and stew peas, coconut dumpling ... ok I'm going to stop there. Let's just say, I'm yet to find anything as good as good Caribbean cooking.

I realized as I was writing this, that some of the things I like were diametrically opposite to each other. I like the convenience of doing business online or going through self-checkout lines here. But I also miss chatting with a cashier in the bank, who's known you since you were a kid. I love the variety afforded to me through malls and super-stores here. But I miss the small stores in St Vincent, where it's easy to ask the owner for a discount, since they're sitting right there and they'll give you the discount because they know your mother, or your sister was in school with their sister, or any other obscure relation.

It made me realize that I can't have it both ways. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd live 6 months in North Carolina and 6 months in St Vincent. Because when I'm here, I miss St Vincent. And I know that if I were in St Vincent, I'd miss North Carolina after a while. I don't think it's a case of 'the grass is always greener'. I think it's more of a recognition that each place is special in its own way and provides something that the other cannot.

So perhaps I should think a little less about how homesick I am and think more on how lucky I am to have two incredible, beautiful places to call home.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Friendship for a Lifetime

This weekend I was reminded of a well known poem that talks about friendship for a reason, a season or a lifetime. If you don't know it, here it is:

Reason, Season, or Lifetime

People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.
When you figure out which one it is,
you will know what to do for each person.

When someone is in your life for a REASON,
it is usually to meet a need you have expressed.
They have come to assist you through a difficulty;
to provide you with guidance and support;
to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually.
They may seem like a godsend, and they are.
They are there for the reason you need them to be.

Then, without any wrongdoing on your part or at an inconvenient time,
this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end.
Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away.
Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand.
What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done.
The prayer you sent up has been answered and now it is time to move on.

Some people come into your life for a SEASON,
because your turn has come to share, grow or learn.
They bring you an experience of peace or make you laugh.
They may teach you something you have never done.
They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy.
Believe it. It is real. But only for a season.

LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons;
things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation.
Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person,
and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.
It is said that love is blind but friendship is clairvoyant.

— Unknown

This past weekend, two of my very good friends from the Abbey were getting married in Arkansas. Mr Caramel and I, along with my other friends from the Honors program, were invited. Needless to say, Arkansas is not close by. But all of us planned it out, and got in from all over - and I do mean all over - to be there at the wedding. People flew and drove in to Arkansas from North and South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, Missouri, etc. Did we do it just because we had extra time on our hands? Not exactly. But because we wanted to be there for our friend on the happiest day of his life. And also because we value any time that we can get together and have fun.

In all, we spent over 30 hours in a car and drove over 1700 miles. And you know what? It was completely worth it. Those hours of discussing random topics, singing along badly to the radio and laughing about absolutely nothing, just reminded me of what amazing friends I have. I have friends that I can go months without seeing but we pick up right where we left off when we do see each other. I have friends who are willing to sacrifice a weekend to be there for one of our group. 

When I look back on this past weekend, I won't remember how cramped I felt after sitting for so long or how tired I was. I'll remember how honored I felt to be there when two wonderful people promised to spend their lives together. I'll remember sitting around tables in various restaurants - some good, some not so good - discussing everything from theology to movies. I'll remember crossing the Mississippi river for the first time and watching beautiful lightning flash across the sky. I'll remember conversations at the lake. I'll remember how hard we laughed. 

So today, as I dragged my very tired self to work, I thought about how fortunate I am to have these friends. I met them 5 years ago, when I was new to America and they made Belmont Abbey feel like home. They're the first group of people that I truly felt ok to be myself around. Back then, we used to get together for study groups and trips into Charlotte. Now we get together for weddings and Homecomings. And I can easily see us getting together in the not too distant future for babies, 5 and 10 year reunions and any other excuse we can come up with to see each other. And I'm very confident when I say, that these are friends that I'll have for the rest of my life.

So here's to you Honors class of 2014, my American family. I love you guys. Thank you for being some of the best friends I'll ever have. See you for the next adventure.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

I Said Yes

To my readers: this is going to be an absolutely sappy, reminiscing blog post. You have been warned.

Last year, Mr Caramel surprised me and proposed in exactly the way I had always dreamed of being proposed to. We were at the beach, watching the sun rise. And at the exact moment of sunrise, at 6:08 am (he checked the exact time), he pulled out a gorgeous ring and proposed to me. And as the sun was rising on a new day, I said yes to a new life. It was my dream proposal. I did what I always said that I wouldn't do - I cried. Yes, I was that cliche. I cried and took selfies and pictures of my brand new ring. Why did I cry? Because it was a moment that could not have been any more perfect. Because I had just agreed to marry the man who had swiftly become my best friend.

Now, I know that it's not yet our one year anniversary. But it's still pretty special to me. Because that weekend taught me so much. It taught me that I don't have to always be in control. It taught me that I need to just relax and enjoy the moment. It taught me that sometimes surprises can be amazing. Below is an excerpt of what I had written in my journal the night before Mr Caramel had proposed:

'I'm on the beach. At sunset. And you know what makes it even more perfect? I'm with the man I love. I love the beach. It's like my soul finds complete peace when I'm at the beach. I'm reminded that I'm just one tiny piece of a wonderfully huge universe and there's a mighty God who takes care of it all. He has a master plan for everything - including my life.

A year ago, I would not have ever imagined that I'd have fallen head over heels in love. That I'd be planning to spend the rest of my life with an amazing man, who's quickly become my best friend.

It reminds me of my favorite Bible verse, 'All things work together for good to those who love the Lord'. It reminds me to trust in God's plan for my life and to  not worry so much and not try to plan every detail on my own.

You know, in planning this trip, there was a small part of me that really hoped that there would have been a proposal this weekend. I don't think he's going to. And it's ok. I don't have to be in control of every last detail in my life. I don't have to plan everything. Because you know what? Sometimes the surprises along the way are the best part.'

Little did I know, that about 12 hours later, Mr Caramel really would propose. And there I was thinking that he couldn't surprise me.

One year later, I'm still working on trusting God. I'm still working on letting go of control sometimes. And Mr Caramel still manages to surprise me. Mr Caramel, thank you for asking me to be your wife. That was the best 'yes' I've ever said. I've never regretted it and I know that I never will. Thank you for teaching me, even when you didn't know that you were. Thank you for helping me to be a better person.