For Suse Cairns, this is such a Baltimore moment – a crabfest with her former housemates and neighbors the summer she arrived in 2014. This photo sums up Suse’s first feelings of community – and captures a bit of a crush, too, because one of these neighbors would become her partner. In fact, the best part of being here for her has been “falling in love with someone wonderful.” This crabfest was also the first night she ever saw a firefly, and the strangest part of being here was learning that fireflies are real. “They still seem as magical as fairies to me,“ she says.
Suse is from Newcastle, Australia – a beachside town on the east coast of the continent – and her immigrant status is unusual. She’s on the E3 visa, a category of visa unique to Australia. It’s a two-year, temporary visa that’s tied explicitly to her job, which is currently Assistant Professor of Museum Studies at the George Washington University. If it wasn’t for the E3, she probably wouldn’t have been able to move to the US at all. That said, if she lost her job, she’d need to leave within ten days or risk overstaying her visa. There are no immediate pathways to residency from the E3, so it’s a bit of a no-man’s land visa, leaving Suse feeling vulnerable when it comes to longer term planning or building a life here. And she wants to build a life here.
Her first experience of the United States was in 2011, when she came to attend a conference in Philadelphia – and it was life-changing. “That trip introduced me to people, places, and possible futures that I hadn’t imagined previously. The people I met became my mentors, friends, and collaborators, inviting me back to the USA for future conferences and collaborations.” When her PhD was ending, Suse knew she wanted to be in this country; it was where the conversations were. “I openly told my friends and connections that I wanted to move over here, and that one of them would have to find me a job.” And one of them duly did.
The moment when everything fell into place has the aura of an epiphany. “Right at the end of 2013,” Suse says, “I was sitting on a break wall overlooking the ocean, thinking about how little I could predict what was going to come next. My life had been so unsettled by that stage, and I didn’t have a good sense about what the future would hold. Rather than getting too worried, I consciously decided to have faith that the right thing would come along, and that I’d recognise it when I saw it. A few days later, I got a call from a mentor of mine, telling me she was taking on a new job at The Baltimore Museum of Art, and asking if I wanted to come and join her?” Of course, the answer was yes.
The experience of actually living here was even more fundamentally life-changing for Suse than attending the conference in Philadelphia had been. “Moving to Baltimore was accompanied by so much change in my life generally, from leaving my marriage and job, to finishing my PhD, and leaving behind almost all my possessions.” In a relatively short period, almost everything that was familiar in her daily life was changed. And she found that she was also changed emotionally. “I became much more attuned to, and accepting of, my emotions,” she says. She found she had to grow up quickly in that time, and she learned how much she could rely on herself when under pressure. “That was a good discovery.”
The changes also rippled out to encompass broader issues. “I’ve become more charged to personally make a difference in the world, and to be an agent for positive change.” It has been challenging for her coming to a country as big and complex as the USA, and feeling both an incredible urge to be a part of its future, but not fully understanding its past (or even its present). America, she finds, is a much harder country than Australia in general, but the complexity is also what makes America so beautiful. “Being here, I feel like I’m learning to see and understand the world more fully. Even though some of what I’m seeing is hard to take, losing sight of that complexity would be far worse. I think it would be hard for me to return to Australia now. I’d be scared that I’d forget what I’ve learned since being here.”
So, Baltimore is home for Suse right now. And she suspects it might be for some time to come.
In a really wonderful addendum, after this posting, Suse married her crush in the crabfest photo, so Baltimore – and, indeed, America – will truly be home to her for some time to come.