When you listen to Paul Hwang speak, you uncover his words beneath a slow drawl, like sifting for gold in a river. It’s an unexpected cadence to find in a city like New York, his current home, or in a city like Seoul, South Korea, his hometown. Those are metropolitan mazes, places where words should be as fast as your step and loud enough to hear amid honking traffic and constant construction. No, his slow drawl must come from Santa Barbara, California, the beach city cresting the Pacific Ocean where he lived for four years. There, among avocado fields and rolling hills and thick foliage, Hwang first acquainted himself with the United States.
“For me,” Hwang said, “that was America.”
In America, 680,000 people are naturalized annually, according to the the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. To be eligible to become a U.S. citizen, a person should be at least 18 years old, a lawful green card holder for at least five years and physically in the country for at least 30 months. Over one million people immigrated to the U.S. in 2015, according to World Atlas. That same year, as noted by Homeland Security, the U.S. naturalized 730,000 citizens, with 36 percent from Asia, 34 percent from North America and 11 percent from Europe. Of those naturalized, California was home to 21 percent.
Hwang, a CAS junior majoring in economics, would not be considered in any of these statistics. It has been 11 years since Hwang first immigrated to the U.S., transplanting himself from Seoul to the heart of Southern California, where he boarded at Cate School, a four-year college preparatory school near Santa Barbara. The F-1 Visa and the Form I-20 that allow him to study in the U.S. also brand him with a nonimmigrant student status. A nonimmigrant visa implies the intention of entering and living in the U.S. only temporarily. A consular officer may analyze factors that relate to that intent, such as personal and business ties in each country, as well as previous attempts to obtain permanent residence in the U.S., according to Chodorow Law Offices.
For Hwang, obtaining his F-1 and I-20 was, in his words, pretty easy. He went to the U.S. Embassy in South Korea, presented his financial statement, waited a couple of weeks and then received his visa. Because he was financially stable, the process went relatively smoothly.
“The reason they want your financial statement is a lot of people come here and don’t leave,” Hwang said. “If they don’t have anything to go back to Korea for, they will assume that you are not gonna leave and just stay here. A lot of people are migrating here. So, I guess it’s a process they should take because nobody wants trouble.”
The Korean Bureau of Consular Affairs lists on its website documentation that may be required to qualify for a visa, including transcripts, degrees, evidence of how a student will pay for educational and living costs and a student’s intent to depart the United States upon completion of the course of study.
In Hwang’s case, he would like to stay here after graduation. After all, America, to him, has always been a source of dreams.
Back home in Seoul, he attended an international school that taught him about U.S. culture and history, inspiring him to pack up his life and become a transcontinental denizen. From Santa Barbara to New York City, he became enamored with Western culture, from the liberty it grants students who get to choose what they want to study or who they want to be, to the different kinds of cultures he’s encountered from coast to coast. He loves the open-mindedness of people in the U.S.
“Gay people, in Korea, nobody talks about it,” Hwang said as an example of the contrasting openness. “But, here you’re open to it and accepting. That’s who you are, right?”
Even when Hwang took a three-year leave of absence from NYU in 2011 to serve his state-sanctioned mandated time in the Korean army, he still recalled training alongside the U.S. army as his fondest memory of that experience.
Hwang knows that the U.S. may not be his home for much longer after he graduates. In order to stay, he’d need to get hired at a company that would support him getting his visa, and he doesn’t believe it is likely.
“I personally have to go back because it’s [a] really hard process to become an American citizen,” he said. “And I’m not gonna go through all that and I’m not gonna stay here illegally. I really like it here, but, after all, Korea’s my country.”
In Korea, he hopes to pursue the kind of political commentary that is characteristic of TV show hosts like John Oliver or Bill Maher, working behind the scenes as a producer or writer. Political commentary like that, he thinks, isn’t as well-known or poignant in Korea as it is in the U.S. Still, he has hope for the country he came from, a place he thinks is becoming more open in terms of its culture, while the place he now lives is regressing.
“When I first came to [U.S.],” Paul said. “It was 2006. America was already great as it was. I don’t think the whole Make America Great Again … that’s kinda overdoing it. Because it was fine as it was. Now, I see more polarization than ever before. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a greater thing.”
Paul isn’t entirely certain whether he feels disenchanted or enlightened by condition of the U.S. today. What he can be certain of, at least, is that he can bring home his American dreams, open mind and slow, Californian drawl.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 10 print edition. Email Chelsey Sanchez at [email protected]