It just entered my mind that I hadn't seen my green card in a while, when I sat down to board my flight Singapore-bound. It's not something that I carry with me at all times since you only need it to re-enter the US, and I fear that I could drop it if it's always on me. Having just split my luggage in two and left the half with a storage at KIX (thanks to Air Asia's stingy carry-on weight limit) I figured it was there.
I could have looked into taking some kind of an action at this moment, then in hindsight that wouldn't have made a difference.
After a week in Singapore, back at KIX, I looked through the half of my luggage which had been waiting there. No luck. Checked into a small, Buddhist-theme hotel near Shin-Sekai, looked through everything and still no luck. Then I had to pause; where could I have possibly left it? I know myself enough to doubt my ability to organize, even though this was the first time after all the places I've gone in the last few years that I misplaced THAT ONE. I started my research as to what to do, but the hotel had a dismal wifi and I had no data roaming on my phone. There's nothing to be done at this hour, so to maintain my composure I signed up for the hotel's offering of Sutra copying, the very first try at improving my life-long weakness that is handwriting. After about an hour of zen-like status, I hit the nearby izakaya for a night cap. Still got ways to go till the true enlightenment.
The morning comes, I check out and find the nearest coffee shop for faster wifi and a caffeine kick. I call the US consulate general in Osaka which is 20min subway ride away, the robot makes me push a few numbers before I get to a person who, in a very thick Japanese-accented English tells me that they do NOT deal with green card issues. I switch to my mother tongue and ask for clarification, but she remains uncooperative. I call the Embassy in Tokyo, some white dude answers and basically says the same thing, sounding annoyed to even speak to me, and suggest that I call USCIS. It's 6pm PDT, They JUST CLOSED. Ticked off and helpless, I start to dig in online. Turns out I need to file the ONLY USCIS form ("boarding foil") that needs to be submitted physically in person to a US Embassy, and it takes at least 14 business days to process. My face couldn't have sunk in deeper into my palms, sitting outside Tully's with countless cherry trees in full bloom.
I had to make a call to miss my return flight and retreat to Toyama, and sort things out. I also had the slightest of doubt that I have left it back home when I re-packed. I had my mom look through the place already, but the place is bit of a mess, and she might not recognize it. So I hopped on a train back to where I was, not even two weeks prior.
Upon arriving, I started flipping everything in sight in the place while on hold with USCIS (which by the way took many button pushes to steer away the robots telling me to find info online) and, to much of my dismay, found no luck in either; couldn't get any person on the phone at any of the US offices, and no green card to be found. Upon deciding to file this form anyway, I called back US Embassy and Consulate General to make an appointment to submit, then got shut down by the same persons as earlier, with the same line of "We don't deal with USCIS matters. There is NO USCIS office in Japan." Am I gonna have to bring this one piece of paper all the way to Seoul, or Beijing? The form itself costs me half a grand, then the flight to either of the USCIS offices in Asia, a hotel? With the minimum of 2 weeks wait? For misplacing one card?
Why is my identity, well-being and rights so contingent on this one piece of plastic?
Why do we let these plastics own our lives?
After calling and emailing all the places that I've gone through on this trip; hotels, Airbnb, airports and terminals, airlines, train stations and busses to confirm that it's (somehow) gone, I found one piece of info on USCIS, Embassy and a few websites that, in general if you have even an expired green card as long as it has been valid for 10 years, CBP would let you in. Upon discussing this with a few immigration lawyers, this seems to be an option but also ultimately it's at CBP officer's discretion whether I get in or not (even with the aforementioned boarding foil). I had to give this a shot, or else I'd be stuck here for weeks or longer, much further in red financially. I found a reasonably-priced one way flight from Toyama to LA via Incheon, called the airline ahead to make sure that I at least can board with this arrangement, and booked it.
Coincidentally this was such a gorgeous time to be in Toyama, just at the tail end of the cherry season and in between the rain and the wind that would sweep all the blooms away in the matter of days. It also gave me more time to deal with some unfinished family business, which I will write about later.
So I fly, along with Korean tourists who probably came from their visit to Tateyama for the infamous Snow Wall, to Seoul for the transit to Cali. The first incident arises at the transfer desk in Incheon, due to of my lack of proper document which I had notified the airline in advance, and to ease the confusion of the clerk who had difficulty explaining the situation to "the government," I got on the phone with who I assumed was the US Embassy in Seoul. She unenthusiastically agreed to let me on board, then the confused and now pissed off airline clerk throws a boarding pass on the desk with nothing to say. She didn't even acknowledge that I thanked her.
Needless to say, this raised my stress level as I approached LAX. I was not anticipating this much push back even before the touchdown, so who knows what the CBP would do? At the immigration gates the things seemed a bit chaotic, with way more foot traffic than I had expected. After a lengthy wait I present myself to one of the kiosks, the officer sees my expired green card and without hearing much of my speech, sends me to a separate room.
The Admissibility Review room I was taken to reminded me of a DMV; out of 7 windows only 2 were manned, all the exhausted travelers seated uncomfortably, one guard kept threatening to take cellphones out of whoever was using it. Some names get called and they are let go, some are interrogated further. The officers were chatting and goofing around with each other, some more friendly to the travelers than others. The situation didn't seem any more graver than just another example of inefficient bureaucracy that we have to live with.
I waited about 2 hours before my name was called. Upon seating in front of a plexiglass with a hole, the officer asked me (for the third time) if I was aware that my green card was expired. I calmly started to explain the ordeal from the moment that I left the country with the renewed GC, but once again he didn't even let me finish and asked if I had applied for a replacement. I said yes, then he went "Yea I see that you did (in our database)."
THEN WHY DO YOU EVEN ASK ME?
He handed me my document and said "have a good day."
Three mornings in a row I beat the rooster after he woke me up around 4:32 on the first day. That's not the only thing that reminds me of Sukawati, or Bali for that matter; the Greatest common divisor of Siem Reap and is that they are both small rural poor communities overwhelmed by tourism.
With the limited timeframe of my visit to Cambodia, I opted to focus on visiting Ankor Wat and its surrounding temples and ruins. Some might be able to only afford one day ticket, but it's well worth getting a 3-day if you wanna experience these wonders, which I did. I also suggest going to Angkor National Museum, maybe even before visiting any of these sites. The exhibit itself is huge and rich with the information about Khmer history and culture in general, you might not even need those tour guides. My humble homestay was only a couple of miles away and came with a free bike rental that allowed my to explore the entirety of Angkor Archaeological Park, about 8-10 square miles in 3 consecutive days, in the excruciating heat and the merciless sun.
It often seems futile to use words and pictures to describe the massiveness, breathtaking beauty and the overall awesomeness of these sites. Beyond the architectural accomplishment of Khmer of centuries past, the astonishing strength of nature reclaiming its domain also is awe-inspiring to say the very least. To this day, I remain speechless.
what Just as beautiful and inspiring are the people of Siem Reap; much like the rest of Southeast Asia but probably much poorer, and younger as a whole. Even a quick read of the wikipedia page would give you how complex and tragic their history has been, and one can't help but seeing irony in how the pride of the entire nation and the people as the name suggests ("Siem Reap" means "the triumph over Siam") is also what seems to be caging the very people in the blackhole of overtourism. Meanwhile they discourage visitors from buying trinkets from children (so they would choose education over child labor) but the overwhelming reality is that they need that quick money just to survive.
I actually met the now-viral-star who speaks 10 languages. He spoke maybe at 2 or 3 languages at this point, and quite aggressive with his sales. It was him who threw me the line above as I was walking through the gate of Ta Prohm; You buy, you friend. You no buy, you tourist. Even before meeting him, I knew that being a tourist in these regions is a tricky business. Every purchase you make or refuse, the consequences are much more grave for the ones that don't get to leave. And every time I try to stick to what UNICEF or any organizations tell me, it breaks my heart. Seeing him go further than the rest of his contemporaries gives me a sigh of relief, but with even heavier sigh of helplessness.
One tuk-tuk driver approached to me by the entrance to Ankor Thom, asking if I had a power bank. This emo Cambodian Jack Black of a youngster spoke excellent English, quite friendly and was a bit of a ladies' man. Entertained and exhausted from 2 days of bike-riding, I decided to give him some business for his rate was quite reasonable. He turned out to be kinda charming and less than professional, but when he showed me the side of Cambodian tourism, on Pub Street, that is undistinguishable from what I've seen in every other place; locals catering to privileged visitors by adopting to their capitalist, self-centered, instant-gratification-seeking ways, I just had to palm my face. On the same token, this could be MY tourist mind demanding exoticism. Why even bother traveling what I'd get in every corner of the world are "Shape of You" and/or "All About That Bass"? Within minutes I tell him to bail, then he proceeds to ask if I wanted a "girly massage." I, irritated, put a smile on my face and tell him to get me home. He seems disappointed, offered a ride to the airport next morning and did not show up.
I could have shrugged all of these off and moved on, but I then remembered him saying how he wanted to quit catering to tourists, move to the states, get a job doing anything to fund his study. Might've been the case of "stripping to pay for college," or might've been that he was just being inconsistence in his logic by denying my hiring him. However, he could've ripped me off by giving me a ridiculous quote. He could've come pick me up the next morning for extra cash. I doubt that he enjoys this life. I bet that he knows the importance of education. He came off just like any of us, feeling stuck in a familiar routine and not quite able to realize his ambition.
I try to be a friend, but all I could be was just another tourist.
I need to apologize to however many readers I might have, and to myself, for failing to set aside time for writing. In several ways, 2018 was the year of decluttering; as we moved from the suburb of Los Angeles where I lived for as long as I have lived in the States, so much of what I have collected purposelessly and often unintentionally needed to be shaken off of my life, and what is essential needed to be given the space it needed. And as I sit down again in front of an empty digital page, I see that I need to do the same with all the snapshots I have taken along my journey around the sun. I'm gonna go reverse-chronologically and review all the photos and add some context to them, trying to find stories wherever I can find.
I had not been back to Oahu in a while. I had felt that, after the first 5 or so years I frequented the most populous (and developed) of the islands, I'd rather visit outer islands and save Oahu for family occasions. I just wished that it were not for this particular occasion.
Of course, the island always offers the perfect blend of familiar and exciting things.
It's easy for me, a visitor with a local hookup, to think that life here is slow and simple, while I scoff down Malasadas, hike around the hills of Manoa. The reality of course is a lot more complex for many, and in every few breathtakingly beautiful things you see, a somber reminder; water quality warnings for beaches due to the aging sewerage system, plastic waste spotted at every scenic point, homelessness and poverty.
Not too long ago we took 2 trips to Hilo on the Big Island roughly one year apart from each other, and witnessed one particular rather-undiscovered snorkeling spot going from the most vibrant and massive coral reef colonies I've ever seen to a greyed-out shell of its former glory. The amazement of finding myself, upon diving in, surrounded by the massive civilization underwater, and the devastation I felt when I dipped into the exact same spot to find it all gone, are indescribable. ("Chasing Coral" a documentary is one of the many documentations of this urgent, global and very local issue.)
I, off all people, shouldn't need a reminder. I have seen and learned everywhere I have been, new and familiar, the effect of overtourism. That also should not come as a surprise to anyone who has a social media account (or a blog). Stories from your awesome vacation told in pictures are least-controversial, non-combative and popular posts from your peers, and every hard-working middle class who drops money in these communities that accept them deserves those likes. The most importantly, however, throwing the sheet of your hard-earned cash over the pile of dump you took on the street of Venice is definitely not the way to go.
My people used to (and maybe still) do just that, only a few decades back when we started to come up in the global economy, treating this gem of the Pacific as just a wallpaper for their wedding picture or an outlet mall for overpriced trinkets. I don't think anyone should be advised against staring into a sun setting on Waikiki beach or from atop Diamond Head. Hell, I'm pretty sure I'd hit Robot Restaurant next time I'm in Tokyo. Just remember to take your fucking plastic bottle with you when you leave.
Also; count your blessings. To have been and seen where and what you thought was beautiful, you are more fortunate than the most. And that takes way more than some dumb hashtag. I'm not judging, just telling myself how fucking lucky I am to be where I am, and hope to have enough time to thank everyone and everything who made that possible.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. Currently travelblogging at #beatvagabond and working on new material.