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I'm An Immigrant. Here's What You Don't See On '90 Day Fiancé.'

"It seems cruel to condone a show that — however indirectly — portrays the stark reality of the immigrant story as trashy entertainment and little else."
The author at her graduation.
The author at her graduation.

Fascinated by the cult following and rave reviews of “90 Day Fiancé,” I recently rallied my three roommates together to indulge in what seemed like a worthy guilty pleasure. 

The show’s premise is a simple one: Each season follows six couples as they navigate the K-1 “fiancé” visa process, in which a U.S. citizen petitions for their foreign significant other to enter the country. Once approved, the couple has 90 days to marry, or else the foreign national must return to their home country. 

As we quickly progressed through the first few seasons in a matter of days, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable. Consistent with other TLC shows, “90 Day Fiancé” emphasizes conflict to keep viewers hooked — 15 year age gaps; parents who disapprove of interracial marriages; accusations of cheating; foreigners who barely speak English finding themselves needing to navigate redneck America. 

My American roommates and I devoured it all, yet I couldn’t bring myself to laugh or roll my eyes at each cringe-worthy interaction as freely as they did. 

I moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong six years ago for my undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California. It was preceded by a decade of motivation. I was 2 years old during Hong Kong’s handover to China. The city’s bleak future was a staple dinnertime topic throughout my childhood, the conversation becoming increasingly agitated over the years. Uncertain of the truth behind “one country, two systems,” my parents enrolled me in an international school. Like many upper-middle-class parents in Hong Kong, they hoped my exposure to Western culture meant I could comfortably start a new life anywhere, if necessary.

My American roommates and I devoured the show, yet I couldn’t bring myself to laugh or roll my eyes at each cringe-worthy interaction as freely as they did.

I began exclusively listening to Billboard’s Top 40 and befriending children of expats. It was easy to pretend I didn’t speak Cantonese to food stall owners who struggled to reply with broken English. Weekends were spent at SAT prep and math tutoring. Holding my acceptance package to USC, it wasn’t giddy triumph I felt, but relief. Finally, a brief reprieve from mounting desperation. 

After graduating summa cum laude, I accepted the first and only job offer with work visa sponsorship. Although my career path would have been meaningfully different if visas were a non-issue, I still feel an unfathomable sense of pride, especially when I scroll past Instagram posts by high school classmates announcing their repatriation. There is an unspoken acknowledgment that a “fresh start” is code for “admission of defeat”—few manage to overcome this country’s demanding immigration policies.

Back in my San Francisco apartment, observing my roommates laugh cruelly at the dramatized characters onscreen, I realized that they were unaware of how the challenges portrayed were reflective of ones I faced, too. Although my path to the U.S. was a self-forged one, the dramas onscreen resonated with me so much that the show did not feel like entertainment, but a dirty revelation of my private struggles. 

Although my path to the U.S. was a self-forged one, the dramas onscreen resonated with me so much that the show did not feel like entertainment, but a dirty revelation of my private struggles.

When my roommates cringed at young women sobbing in their native languages to pixelated family members over Skype, I found it gut-wrenching. There are days when the guilt of escaping Hong Kong overwhelms me, especially in the current political climate. My family is older and frailer every year when I visit for two precious weeks. It’s been a lonely journey, navigating the trials and tribulations of adulthood without my family by my side. The half-day delay between text messages exacerbates the perceived distance. 

As I watched the couples on TV navigate awkward family introductions, dodging scathing comments and passive-aggressive niceties, I recalled how an ex-fling’s parents pressured him into ending our casual relationship because of my “ulterior motives.” I had never met them. 

This skepticism and uncomfortable scrutiny repeated itself with my current boyfriend’s relatives when we began dating two years ago. Ironically, on our first date, when I made him guess where I was from, he had confidently declared “L.A.,” referencing my “Valley Girl accent.” He, a half-white half-South-Asian man, was shocked to learn of my international upbringing and admitted he never would’ve guessed I wasn’t American. 

The author and her boyfriend.
The author and her boyfriend.

When the ”90 Day Fiancé” cast members reiterated how the foreign partner faced deportation if they couldn’t figure out the relationship within the 90-day period, it compelled me to reflect on my own precarious status. My life in this country depended solely on a small ad agency that had hired me as an entry-level employee; expendable, cheap, exploitable. With its traditional business model, the company was struggling to adapt to the technological disruptions affecting the marketing industry. 

The existentially huge stakes of losing my work visa forever loom in the background of my mind. I imagine: moving back into my childhood bedroom, so stifling after my half-decade away; opening a closet full of clothes I’d left behind and realizing that they no longer fit; posting my own confession of failure disguised as joy on social media; hugging my boyfriend goodbye, trying to memorize the details etched on his face that are blurred onscreen; struggling to remember the cast of characters in a narrative to which I belonged only tangentially. 

At 1 a.m., when my roommates declared that they’d had enough stupidity and delusion for the night, I appreciated a sense of fondness for the figures onscreen. It was almost heartwarming to witness the universality of the immigrant experience — that I, who grew up in a major international city, felt so connected to the young woman from a small Brazilian town. 

Unfortunately, the popularity of the show makes me believe that the story America craves is exploitative, where immigration is portrayed as a cynical joke.

Yet underlying this camaraderie was a strange feeling of bitterness. The antagonism and delegitimization from repeated accusations of deception, greed and manipulation that these foreign fiancés experienced were simply too familiar to me. When immigrants to this country endure these hostile experiences — regardless of what path they took to get here, regardless of their circumstances, and regardless of their backgrounds — what exactly is the type of immigrant that this country wants? Unfortunately, the popularity of the show makes me believe that the story America craves is exploitative, where immigration is portrayed as a cynical joke. 

Despite my qualms, I’m ashamed to admit that I finished several seasons of the show under the guise of rooting for the foreign fiancés to successfully find happiness and acceptance. But underlying that sentiment of goodwill was a sense of hypocritical, therapeutic relief. I found comfort in the knowledge that I was able to navigate the complexities of immigrant life without the drama and insecurity of relying on the complicated intricacies of a romantic relationship, with all its manic ups and volatile downs.

Yet my journey is rooted in privilege and opportunities afforded to only a few. Upon reflection, I feel guilty, not only for my privilege but also for my selfish indulgence in this pleasure that gives me a dopamine rush by reminding me how much worse things could be, at these immigrants’ expense — people with whom I have found solidarity.

In the end, ”90 Day Fiancé” is rooted in anti-fantasy; it entertains via self-righteous voyeurism into intimate catastrophes. It just seems cruel to condone a show that — however indirectly — portrays the stark reality of the immigrant story, complete with themes of xenophobia, desperation and hope, as trashy entertainment and little else. 

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