the transnational clock

words & images kirsten han 

When you enter a transnational relationship, you get a clock. It’s not a physical clock, even though you wish it were, because then you could break it, lose it or throw it away. It is an indestructible clock that keeps ticking down.

Calum and I first met at a pub quiz in 2012, both of us newly enrolled at a Welsh university. I impressed him with my knowledge of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (“It’s four kids and a dog, not five kids!”). It was probably the most direct benefit I’ve received from a childhood of British colonialist literature.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we wanted to be together for far longer than my student visa would allow. He suggested one day that we “should do something about it.” Not long after, I switched my stainless steel Doctor Who ring from my right hand to the fourth finger on my left.

This was back when we still subscribed to the idea, so naive and trusting in hindsight, that marriage would solve all our visa problems. Surely no one could be mean enough to deny a spouse a visa and tear a new family apart?

But the British government has great experience in tearing families apart. Immigration rules introduced in 2012 stipulate that the British spouse must earn an income of £18,600 per year for at least six months before the couple is even eligible to apply for a spousal visa.  

In an economy of unpaid internships, zero-hour contracts and intense competition, this was a death knell for the immigration hopes of many a young, freshly-graduated couple.

With no work, no visa, and no clue, we said goodbye at Edinburgh Airport without knowing when we’d say hello again. We were both stubborn and tried our best not to cry. I failed.

Almost a year after that moment at Edinburgh Airport, we’re partly there--paperwork and all. There was the wedding in Scotland with Singaporean heat, which featured kilts and kebayas. This, at least, granted us a piece of paper, from which all other paperwork will now stem.

And paperwork there is: paperwork duly submitted in Singapore. A small stack of forms, with photocopies of identification cards and passports and birth certificates and university qualifications, neatly sorted and handed over to civil servants seated behind desks and counters. Applying for a spousal visa isn’t as depressing as in the UK, where a financial threshold can smash a dream. But it has its own set of frustrations.

We applied for Permanent Residency first – we were told we might qualify under a family scheme. I downloaded the forms and painstakingly filled them out, every number and letter in the right box, checked over and over again.

We were bang on time for our application appointment, and approached the desk on our best behavior. The woman behind the desk looked like she’d already seen too many people that day. She was unimpressed by my neat handwriting.

“Here you need to write ‘N/A’. Here you need to sign,” she said, circling boxes with a pencil, taking apart what I thought was our perfect application.

“Your identification card needs to be photocopied in the middle of the page, not in the corner.”

She unfolded Calum’s first university degree, A3 size and proudly printed in Latin. “What’s this?”

“It’s my first university…” Calum began, but she looked at me instead, frowning.

“It’s his first university degree,” I explained, as if I were some sort of English-to-English translator. “The translation of the Latin is at the bottom.”

“It needs to be photocopied to A4 size.”

The appointment, meant to be a 15-minute formality of checking boxes, turned into a day-long operation of getting new photocopies, finding a desktop computer with Internet access, and printing even more papers.

Cases are generally handled on a case-by-case basis, whether you’re applying for a Long-Term Visit Pass or for Permanent Residency. The system is fairly opaque, leaving most wondering what exactly Singaporean immigration is looking for and how they’re making their decisions. Rejections can come without explanation. All one can do is make sure that everything is in order, and wait.

But waiting is a hopeful, and simultaneously hopeless, game. For example, we hope that at least one of our home countries will take us both. So we’ll know that there’s at least one place in the world where we can be together without worry. One place in the world where the transnational clock will finally stop ticking..

Whereas many would tie the knot and get on with their lives as a team, transnational couples are dependent upon inexplicable policies and bureaucracies that put the decision into the hands of strangers. Those strangers get to delve into your lives, then decide whether we’re allowed to be together.

There are beautiful parts about being in a transnational relationship, don’t get me wrong. My family’s grown beyond borders and timezones. I now have Welsh and Scottish connections I never imagined I would have, homes across the world that I miss wherever I am. The knowledge that there are people on both sides of the globe who love and care for us means more than words can explain.

But the emotional bonds can make things feel even more frustrating. Why is it so difficult to be accepted, when we love each other and have people who love us? Why are we being fed lines about not being a burden to the taxpayer and the importance of integration when we are not trying to claim benefits, and are already integrating into conventional society with our marriage and our families?

Traveling and meeting new people you would never have had the chance to meet before only gets easier. It seems counter-intuitive to have more rules that try to stop people from being together. The facts of the nation-state remain static and borders are not designed to be porous. Why is the clock still counting down?

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