Posts tagged immigration
“Where are you from?” Freedom and the Immigrant Experience
That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones.
— Raymond Carver

Ivan here.

I’m back in Los Angeles after spending the last few months in Taiwan.

On my way back to the States, I was detained in San Francisco for traveling on an expired green card. 

Let me explain.

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In 2015, I arrived in the U.S. on a spousal visa. I was issued a conditional green card, valid for two years, where I had a 90 day window before expiration to "lift the conditions" on my card by submitting another application. Which I did, promptly, on the first day I was eligible. I'd had first hand knowledge of how slow and incompetent the U.S. immigration system could be, and I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

Unfortunately, my application happened to coincide with a certain election and mass confusion around a certain travel ban. So here I am, thirteen months later, and last I checked, the immigration office in Los Angeles hadn’t even gotten around to my case. They were still processing applications submitted in the panic of 2016.

Before I left for Taiwan a few months ago, I called the immigration office and asked for some advice. The lady at the call center told me I could get a passport stamp at the border that would allow me to travel on my green card for another year. This turned out to be the wrong information. I don’t know why she told me this, but I guess considering my previous experiences with immigration, I shouldn’t have been surprised. 

So that’s how I ended up being detained coming back into the country. I was ushered into a backroom and was questioned for 45 minutes while they verified my details.

The border patrol officer who interviewed me turned out to be a real grunt. This isn’t a comment on his appearance, but his general attitude and the way he treated people. He talked slowly, in that condescending tone some people like to use on minorities with foreign-sounding names. He used that tone long after it’d become clear that the people he was talking to (at) spoke perfect English. That’s the problem with grunts: working in grunt-like conditions does a number on their personalities. Even after I’d been cleared by the system, I had to sit there and wait for him to send me off with a lecture - like I was his son.

If I could boil down his Catch-22 argument:

Just because you followed the rules, doesn’t give you the right to disobey the law.

“Didn’t you know that traveling on an expired green card was against the law? No, I don’t want to hear excuses. It’s the law. We wouldn’t be a country without laws. You should’ve stayed put (in LA). But you’re lucky, because I’m letting you off this time.”

He was letting me off.

I recount this story to explain something that an immigrant or minority understands intuitively upon setting foot in this country:

It’s possible to go through your entire life obeying all the rules, until that moment arrives when it doesn’t matter anymore.

My Seventeen Month Nightmare:

The Immigration Process That Almost Cost Me My Marriage

Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

I wish I were the type of person who could just let things go. I really do. My tendency to hold grudges is not an admirable or attractive quality. I often make it a point to remember when someone (deliberately) gets in my way. You know, for down the road. Because whether they know it or not, I'll owe them one.

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Anyway, this is a part of my personality I’m trying to fix.

What I’ve learned since arriving in North America is that I can’t let my guard down here. At least, not in the same way that I could in Taipei. America, to me, is just another opportunity, and I have to accept all the positives and negatives that come with it.

But it’s hard to forget how I was made to pay for it. January 2014 to June 2015 - seventeen months trapped in immigration limbo. Seventeen months of my life. My time. Stuck between a job I hated in Canada and an immigration process with no end in sight. At one point, they lost our paperwork, but forgot to mention this little detail until we reached out to them nearly 14 months into the process.

For a non-trivial percentage of my life, America forced me to choose between my marriage and my mental health, and I resented having to make that choice. In my eyes, the system had held me hostage, then turned around and expected me to feel grateful for it. It damaged the relationship I had with Jennie to the point where it almost cost us our marriage.

At the same time, I recognize my privilege. I know there are people today who have it much worse. I think about the men, women and children still waiting in Syrian refugee camps and it makes me sick. Because I understand it’s not just about the deplorable conditions in which they live and the indifference or hostility they’re met with. It’s the waiting that kills you. Waiting without limit or hope. It’s a fate that’s worse than death, because at least death has certainty. Death has an end date.

Waiting is what eats you up from the inside.  


When it was all over, Jennie met me at the arrivals terminal at Boston Logan Airport on June 1st, 2015. One of the first things she asked me was, “aren’t you happy that we’re finally together?

Happy. Happy? I didn’t say anything because her question had pissed me off, and I knew an argument was brewing.

And argue we did, over and over again in the ensuing months, about the same issue. After all, didn’t we both have to wait for our lives to begin? Why was it that she could learn to let things go, while I had to make such a big deal out of it? Looking back, she was probably right. My wife is usually the more sensible one. Sure, things had been bad, but maybe I was being too dramatic. But I could only go by what I felt during those seventeen months, and that feeling, overwhelmingly, was anger.

“I love you,” I said at the arrivals terminal. “But I’m still trying to decide whether this has been worth it.”

Race and Freedom in America:

“The World is Going One Way, People Another”

Let me be brutally honest: whether or not America is made great again is of no consequence to me. Greatness, after all, is relative. America was “great” in the 1950s because most parts of the world were only a few years removed from being smoldering piles of rubble.

The world is different now. Better get used to it.

Of course, I’m rooting for this country. I’ve grown fond of the people I’ve met here. They have an optimism that I envy and they’re not handicapped by their failures. They have this idea that they can still make their own way in the world. These are ideas that I admire and still believe in.

But I’ve also seen their treatment of immigrants and minorities when the chips were down. What’s happening today with the Dreamers. Muslims. The Black American experience. I’ve walked through the Japanese internment camps at Manzanar. These are things that transcend both politics and administrations. And as bad as things are today, we’re currently nine years into an economic recovery. The U.S. unemployment rate is at 4%. 

I wonder who the scapegoats will be in the next recession?

My Definition Of Freedom Is Choice

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I’m not from here.

If America is one giant melting pot, I’ve got no desire or intention of melting into anything. I can only look at things as they are, unglazed by patriotism, tradition, or social mores. No subject or speech is taboo or sacred to me. These things are my business simply because I see them as my business. And if I’m interested, I’ll stay. If not, I’ll leave. But one thing’s for certain: from here on out, I’ll be coming and going as I please.

I refuse to be someone's collateral damage. Why should minorities have to continually pay for other people’s ignorance or indifference? When do we get to pay them back? In that sense, I was American before ever setting foot in this country. There will be no taxation without representation.

So give me liberty, or give me death.

Short Story: Four Seasons in America

1. Early Spring

I walked by a homeless man on my way to the farmer’s market. As I approached his cardboard box along the wall, I’d been holding my wallet in my right hand and switched it to the left as I passed, the hand furthest away from him. I don’t know why I did that.

The homeless man asked me for some change. He’d written a sign on a piece of his cardboard box, which read like a haiku because there wasn’t enough cardboard for a sonnet.  

It read:

Homeless vet.
Any help appreciated.
God bless.

“Sorry I don’t have change,” I said, and flashed him a look.  

I’d been telling the truth - but he didn’t know that. After I’d walked about ten yards, he called out after me.

“Hey!” he shouted at my retreating back. When I stopped and turned around, he was taken aback and seemed to struggle to find something to say. Anything at all.

“I’m Asian too,” he said weakly.

I didn’t believe him. He was clearly a black man and looked nothing like me. The only thing he and I had in common was that we were both looking for something to say and ended up saying words that didn’t mean anything.

* * *

The only thing in my wallet that day, aside from my identity card and a $20 bill, was a Japanese 50 yen coin. The coin was silver with a hole in the center and was worth about fifty American cents on a good day for Japanese capitalism.  When you hold it up to the morning sky, light shines through it.

It was my lucky coin. The only thing in my life I could still see through.

Besides, I reasoned to myself, this coin wouldn’t have done the homeless man any good. It wasn’t as if he could waltz into JPMorgan Chase and ask for the latest exchange rate. No problem, sir. Right this way, sir. Why don’t we take care of that for you, sir.

To give a man a fifty cent piece he could never use was the same as kicking him in the nuts and telling him “you’re welcome.”

Anyway, it’s early and I’m off to the farmer’s market.

2. Midsummer

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“How much are these nectarines?” I asked.

“Depends,” said the blonde fruit lady. “How much you got?”

I opened my wallet and took a look inside. I counted one Andrew Jackson, who still looked ticked off at me for spending his fellow Americans.

“I’ve got twenty dollars,” I said.

“Well, what do you know,” the fruit lady said, her arms opened wide like Christ the Redeemer. “These nectarines are twenty dollars.”

“What a coincidence,” I said and wondered about the wheels of fate and twists of human fortune.

“Small world,” she nodded. “So, do we have a deal?”

“Let me think about it,” I said, backing away.

“Go ahead honey, but if I were you, I would take the deal,” she said. “What we have here is a classic case of a seller’s market: price collusion meets inelasticity of demand. The demand here being your midsummer’s thirst for my plump and juicy nectarines.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “But I’m gonna check anyway. Just in case there are holes to your fruit lady logic.”

“Suit yourself,” she replied. “It’s a free country.”

I marshaled my last Andrew Jackson and we galloped back into the heat in search of Indians.

3. Late Autumn

It was getting late and there were no Indians to be found. Andrew Jackson had probably slaughtered them all.

“Nice one Andrew,” I said. “Real nice.”

I wasn’t expecting a reply.

“Pssst!” came a voice to my right.

I turned and looked down an alleyway to see a petite, dark-haired Latino lady leaning up against the wall. In the shade, I couldn’t tell her age. She was wearing tortoise shell glasses and a burgundy turtleneck. There was a Virginia Slim between her thumb and forefinger. She brought it to her lips and smoked it sparingly, as if it were the last joint in Jamaica.

“What are you skulking around here for?” she asked bluntly.

“I’m looking for Indi - I mean - nectarines,” I said. “I’m looking for nectarines.”

“Nectarines,” she repeated to herself. “It’s not the season for those anymore. It’s squash and pumpkin season now. Do you like squash?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “What do I do with them?”

“A squash can provide everything you’ll ever need,” she says. “The Native Americans used to cultivate an ancient variety of squash up by the Great Lakes. Some could grow up to five feet long. You could stir fry the flesh and use the seeds to make an orange soup that tastes mild and sweet. You could plant the remaining seeds in the soil and you’ll never want for anything again. It’ll be squash morning, afternoon and night.”

Andrew Jackson and I exchanged glances. Indians.

“How much for a squash?” I asked.

“Seventeen dollars.”

“You’ve got a deal,” I said and we shook on it.

“Wait out here.”

She ducked into a side door down the alleyway and reappeared with a tan squash the exact size and shape of a newborn baby.

I said good riddance to Andrew Jackson and she handed me three George Washingtons and the baby-shaped squash. I had to carry it with both hands it was so heavy.

“You’re a proud father now,” she said. “How do you feel?”

“Happy,” I said. “and worried I might drop this thing.”

She gave me a pat on the back as I turned to leave, “you’ll get used it.”

4. Deep Winter

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On my way home, I passed by the same homeless man and his cardboard box. He was trying not to look at me. He must have felt bad about the Asian comment he’d made earlier. Must’ve thought he’d hurt my feelings.

“Hey,” I said, after carefully setting down the squash on the ground. “I have some change for you now.”

I produced the three George Washingtons scrunched up in my jeans pocket and handed it to him.

“This isn’t much, but it’s all I’ve got left. I won’t be needing it anymore. You can do whatever you like with it. This is America, after all.”

“God bless you,” he said. “And have a nice evening.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said. “And you as well.”

I picked up my squash and kept walking. I made it ten steps before I stopped and called back to him.

“Hey mister!”

“Yes, sir?”

“Did you ever find out who won that war?”

“War,” he frowned, thinking very hard. “Which war was that?”

“Never mind,” I said, shaking my head. “Happy holidays.”

* * *

The soup was delicious. Mild and sweet, just as the lady in the turtleneck had said.

My wife and I are in bed now, our bellies warm. All the lights are turned off and out the window, beyond the city lights, we could faintly make out the stars.

“Another year’s come and gone,” she sighed as we huddled close underneath the sheets. “Feels like it all went by in a second.”

“Let’s take the baby and go somewhere,” I said. “Somewhere fresh and unspoiled by old routines.”

“Let’s talk about this in the morning,” she replied. “When we’re wide awake in the morning.”

“Okay,” I said.

In the silence, we dreamed of a new life and new possibilities. Birds were chirping, plants were blossoming, and each morning, pixies would bring us daylight from a mountain spring.

But first, a deep sleep.

Please wake us when the snow is melting.