Born in the USA!

A foreign American’s journey back to the US
June 2021
Ariel
V.
MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography / Applied Ocean Science and Engineering

Well, the truth is, that’s all I was: just born in the USA. I’d never set foot on US soil since moving away at the young age of 3 months, when my family’s work relocation period ended and they moved back to France. Later, I would find myself growing up in Israel for the greater part of my youth. Most of the time, I would never give the US any thought; I had no connection to the country apart from being born there. My US citizenship was just a fact about my life. No family, no history, no ties. My US knowledge consisted of some random facts about how the passport looked (as I had one), and some minor facts about its history and some cultural preconceptions, which I learned from western media consumption and stories. The next time I would visit the US would be at the age of 29, a necessary trip to get married in a civil wedding, as civil weddings are forbidden in Israel.

My relationship with my US citizenship changed when I decided to pursue a career in applied oceanography after finishing both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental and energy engineering in Israel. The US houses some of the best oceanographic institutes in the world, including the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). When deciding where to apply to graduate school, I considered many aspects of the decision, more than just which institute was the best for my field of study. As a 30 year old married man, my wishes and aspirations had to take into account the wishes of my spouse, who is a biotechnology engineer. Future family matters were also taken into consideration. I was happy to learn that MIT and WHOI address many of these needs through policies which support spouses and young families. Moreover, Cambridge is a hub of biotechnology innovation, a great hotspot for my spouse to succeed and develop her own career. And so, I applied to MIT and was accepted! What an excitement! The next step was to move to the US.

The logistical challenges started with moving. COVID-19 has hit the world pretty hard and international travel was essentially impossible during the month of May, when we were trying to fly, as most airports and airlines had completely shut down. Luckily, the only flight that was leaving Israel was headed to New York. Jackpot! Even though MIT had policies to assist my wife with remote working, we urgently wanted to move to the US to start the green card process. In the US, this procedure requires a long waiting period, at times more than a year, for a work permit. We needed to start this procedure as soon as possible, so relocating to the US was of utmost urgency.

After relocating, the next step was trying to become a grown up “American” very fast. As a US citizen, I was expected to know how everything works from the get-go. However, I soon realized how much I needed to learn: how to do taxes, how to deal with US health insurance, how to understand credit history, how to set up a bank account, how to figure out social security. I had no idea where to start.

Fortunately, MIT has set up many great resources and platforms to help incoming international students adapt to the American way of doing things, but sadly, these resources don’t directly apply to my situation, because even though I am an international student, I am technically a US citizen. My unusual situation made this process even more of a challenge.

The first step I needed to take to tackle this challenge was to conquer my own pride. I needed to ask many “stupid” questions, when I addressed the bank clerk to open a bank account, when I set up health insurance with MIT for me and my partner, and when I attempted to understand the taxation laws. Setting aside my pride was more difficult than one would imagine. I felt as if I was a young adult once more that must go through the whole process of making mistakes and discovering the bureaucratic part of adulthood. I asked an immense number of questions as there are many differences in how things work in America compared to Israel.

I will give you three examples of the differences I encountered between America and Israel and how it affected me and my partner:

  1. Health insurance in Israel is subsidized by the government. All you have to do is ensure you have an Israeli social security number, and then just register with one of 3 main medical agencies that will provide medical care. No matter who you are, as long as you are an Israel citizen you would be covered by insurance in all cases in Israeli territory, even if you haven’t registered to one of the agencies yet. Since we arrived in May, in mid-pandemic, all travel insurance were unreasonably priced, and we couldn’t rely on any government insurance to cover us. Since MIT’s insurance would start only when I officially started school in early June, we found ourselves uncovered for a period of a 10 days, which was a source of stress. We did everything very cautiously during that period, as if we were made of glass, because we knew that any medical expenses would not be covered. 

  2. In Israel, tax returns are handled by your employer. Even if you have special circumstances to declare, you declare these circumstances with your employer, and they handle all your taxes automatically. There is nothing else to be done unless you are self-employed, in which case you handle your own tax returns. In my case, I had to learn how to declare my own taxes and all the nomenclature associated with the US tax system, something I had never needed to do back in Israel. 

  3. When renting a house in Israel, you are not asked anything about your own credit history or financial situation. You just find an apartment and sign a contract. Security deposits are sometimes required, but they are rare. If any of you break the contract, you answer to the legal system. Since I was new to the US, I had no credit history and so landlords were reluctant and very dismissive to our applications for renting their apartments. Moreover, since my income is that of a graduate student, it was not considered sufficient. Luckily, we found an Israeli real-estate agent that understood the position we were in and presented us in a more positive way to landlords. Even though we were to live on a graduate salary for a while, we were debt-less, something that is not that common for US citizens. Therefore, my salary would be sufficient to cover rent and utilities and still have more than enough to live comfortably until our green card process would end in about a year. We eventually found an amazing apartment in Brookline in which the landlord accepted our “bizarre” case, with the help of our agent, and we couldn’t be happier. 

The admins at the department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and at Woods Hole were amazingly receptive and compassionate. When asking my assortment of “stupid” questions, I felt understood and listened to. All admins answered my questions professionally with care and patience. It made me feel welcome instead of neglected. For example, I was asked to fill out state tax forms. The form itself looks completely foreign to me, with all kinds of bizarre criteria. Filing as single, married-jointly or married-separately? What?! So if I am married, but my wife has no work permit, what do I do? My admin made it clear that they wouldn’t be qualified to advise me on taxation matters, but they did answer some of my basic questions about nomenclature and directed me towards great resources that would help me fill out those forms. Moreover, they helped us secure housing in Brookline, providing us promptly with all the documents and proofs that were required by the landlord.

Even outside of MIT, I was greeted with helping hands. One such case was when I opened my bank account and applied for a credit card. Credit cards work differently here, requiring credit scores and credit history. Moreover, credit is actually credit. In Israel, a credit card is connected to a bank account and your monthly statement is paid automatically every month by your bank, even if you cannot afford to pay it. You have no control over the payment. Even though I had a credit card in Israel, I needed to understand how credit works here in America, and how my social security number is used to create a credit history portfolio. I found myself having many conversations with both my admin and my bank clerks about all the nomenclature of credit, and how I should operate in this new environment.

To apply for a green card and complete the US immigration process, we were advised by the amazing non-profit organization Immigration Help. Their core belief is that the US is built up by immigrants, as they are a source of prosperity and growth for the US economy and culture. The non-profit was founded by a group of lawyers and technologists who decided to create a platform for helping incoming immigrants navigate the convoluted US immigration procedure.

We were stressed enough about our mid-pandemic move and dealing with the immigration process was an additional source of uncertainty. Before flying in, we had a pleasant conversation with them to ensure we were making the right decisions prior to arriving. Once we arrived, we had to apply for a green card and fill out the forms. They had developed a Turbo-Tax like system for filling out all the forms and we were provided a checklist to follow through. After all that, they go through all the documents (100+ pages long!) to make sure we were not missing anything. They were very confident in their work, which again, was provided on a voluntary basis. They held our hands through this process and made us feel welcome and safe, all completely free of charge. On top of all that, they are a bunch of amazing people. We cannot thank them enough. Now it’s a year later and we are soon to be finished with the process with a green card interview scheduled for next month. We are very grateful for them and extremely happy this process will soon be over.

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A photo of me in my new home, Boston!

Moving to the US mid-pandemic was challenging. We had our fears and doubts about how everything would unravel, but the marvelous people we encountered upon arrival have helped us put these fears to bed. I’m sure there are many more things to learn, and challenges to tackle, but I feel ready to call myself a “grown up American”. This journey taught me new things about myself and about our society as a whole. I learned that the most crucial step to this process was to conquer my own humility. My next step in this journey would be to truly become American. I want to understand the culture of America, a place I will call home for at least the next 5 years. I’m excited to embrace this next step in my journey, and I can’t wait to share it with you all in my next blog post.