STEM Over Storytelling: An Immigration Story

A personal essay about learning to code and embracing a Malaysian heritage, all in a new home.

By YZ Chin

America was not my first choice.

At seventeen, I was given a privilege of choosing the country in which I would spend my next few years. This was courtesy of a scholarship to support bright young Malaysians who would pursue college degrees in countries with reputations for superior higher education.

My first choice was New Zealand. I had an image of self-sufficient people living on grassy, windy cliffs, keeping sheep for friends. It seemed perfect for a loner, a depressed teenager trying to read and write my way out of my teenage despair. Australia was my second choice for its proximity. For my third and last choice, I put down America because my birthday is on the Fourth of July.

That is how I came to America.

The scholarship was for a STEM degree. There was no option to study literature or other fields in the liberal arts. In the early 2000s, years before the current software engineering boom in the U.S., I settled on Computer Science (C.S.) because I thought it the most creative of all engineering fields. Its practitioners call their craft writing code. It seemed the closest creature to what I saw as my calling, which was to write.

My first year in America, I barely held on to my scholarship because of a depression that spiraled into frequent self-harm. I was busted by my RA for cutting, and ordered to attend mandatory therapy sessions.

Things improved when I was given a spot in the undergraduate writing program to work on a second major in Creative Writing. So began my first bout of balancing coding with writing. I took to quipping that I was a “pro-grammar programmer.” Truthfully, I prioritized my writing education more, dropping C.S. classes when they became too difficult and choosing the “easiest” courses for credit, like Human-Computer Interaction and Game Design (in which our assignment was to mod “Age of Empires III: The War Chiefs”).

No surprise that I graduated a mediocre programmer. By then I had formed an attachment to America. If there was a reason, then it was as Shirley Geok-lin Lim writes in her 1998 poem “Learning to love America:” “because my senses have caught up in my body.” As a writer, I was also concerned about censorship and book-banning in my home country, reports of which I read with distress in news from Malaysia.

But I was soon intimidated by the uphill immigration process. The great difficulty of gaining employment as a mediocre software engineer with a strange, jumbled resume (a novella Honors thesis? Poetry journal internships?) was compounded by the fact that I would require visa sponsorship after one year of work. The visa category, called H-1B, applies to specialty occupations (such as software engineering), DOD research – and fashion models.

As a fat kid who’d frequently been called “ugly,” I was glad to know I could potentially contribute to America on the same level as a fashion model. But the H-1B visa is not cheap, costing around $5,000 by one estimate. Furthermore, the annual number of visas granted is capped at 85,000. Only excellent coders are worth such an undertaking of expenses and paperwork.

Which is to say I couldn’t get a programming job. Eventually, I was hired by a boutique law firm to maintain its database, among other things. My employer did attempt H-1B sponsorship, but the USCIS receives over 200,000 applications for the cap of 85,000 visas within days of opening up for entries. A lottery system randomly selects applications for consideration. Meaning a computer disqualified me.

Panicking, I sought out a Master’s program. An MFA program accepted me, but could not give me financial aid. Foreigners are not eligible for federal student loans. I had to give up the MFA spot I couldn’t afford. Instead, I went to the interdisciplinary Draper program at NYU (since renamed The Center for Experimental Humanities) on scholarship.

While enrolled, I worked 20-hour weeks for living expenses. I also continued writing and learned a few things about myself, chief among which was that I am not a person with extraordinary ability. This was a problem, and not just an existentialist one.

To become a permanent resident, I needed not only to win the H-1B lottery, but also for my employer to apply for a green card on my behalf. In a job market with mostly adjunct openings for Humanities MA grads, this scenario was far-fetched. The other paths to permanent residency included green card marriage and the EB-1 visa, meant for “Immigrants with Extraordinary Ability.”

Therein lay my problem: I was just a twenty-something writer who had not won the Pulitzer, and I had little desire to get married for papers. It is expensive and difficult to obtain an EB-1 visa, even for obviously accomplished individuals like Mohammed Naseehu Ali, or this Canadian writer who crowdsourced funds for his application after being unable to secure a full-time teaching job. Even with the H-1B cap, STEM fields seemed a more reliable path to immigration than the Humanities could be.

In the end, I decided to accept that my time was running out. Although I “won” the H1B lottery on my second try, I knew it would last only three years without an extension. Resolving to make the most of it, I wrote, volunteered, and submitted work to American presses, one of which picked up my poetry chapbook. I told myself I was going out with a bang.

Then around 2012, I realized something was happening: software engineering had become a hot job. All around me, development boot camps mushroomed. Eight-year-olds were learning to code. I dusted off my B.S. and took a customer support job at a tech startup. Over the next three years, I worked my way into more technical roles, until finally I was a software engineer with a green card pending. This both exhilarated and terrified me. I feared losing myself, feared waking up one day with a half-completed manuscript that hadn’t been touched in decades. To counter this terror, I wrote as much as I could—before and after work, on weekends. I thought of writing as something akin to saving my soul.

* * *

My book Though I Get Home—which won the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize and will be released by Feminist Press this April—was born out of this desperation. I felt guilt and bravado in equal measures when I thought about staying on in America. There was also the relief of being somewhat sure I would not be arrested for creating provocative art. All of this, weighing on my mind, became the story of Isabella Sin, the book’s main character who is detained without trial for writing controversial poetry.

I needed, too, to write about where I come from, because I saw how many immigrants feel pressured to shed their pasts. Like me, my grandparents departed alone for a new land. In their case, it was Malaya. But they passed down no family tree, no lore. I was met with silence when I tried probing for the story of their pasts, as if by asking questions about my genealogy I was actively erasing it, an unintentional time-meddling Marty McFly.

In 2013, a Malay assistant principal was called out in Asian One media for telling some of her students to “go back to India and China.” The kids are natural-born citizens of Malaysia. The incident is not unique, and serves only as an anecdotal example of the racial discrimination that at times is so publicly displayed. We’ve been told to “go back” for a long time, by principals and politicians—authority figures, in other words.

Perhaps this is why some of us do not proudly carry our family histories with us. Faced with the existential conundrum of going back to where we have never been, we try to downplay our cultural origins in exchange for being treated as “true” citizens. As if we were saying: Look, we have no back-up nationality squirreled away; we have nothing if you do not grant us this.

That was why I needed to write about Malaysia. I had traveled to a new land, where people also occasionally yelled at me to “go back;” except this time, there was a real place that I had left. And I would not let them intimidate a whole country out of me.

The paths open to immigrant writers are narrow and few, and many of them end abruptly. The hurdles seem to grow ever insurmountable. I am still here only because of a serendipitous choice made when I was seventeen. I wonder how many writers have had to leave. I think about how many stories we’re missing, lost under the blades of censorship—or, worse, the shadowy fear of it. I hope more of us write about where we have been. I hope our stories are not marked for sacrifice to fit into the framework of new lands.

YZ Chin’s debut book of fiction Though I Get Home (Feminist Press, 2018) is the premier winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. She is also the author of two chapbooks: In Passing (Anomalous Press, 2019), and deter (dancing girl press, 2013). Born and raised in Taiping, Malaysia, she now lives in New York. She works as a software engineer by day, and writes by night. Follow her on Twitter @yz_chin and learn more at yzchin.com.