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 left half of my belongings in a storage at KIX (in order to avoid Air Asia's stingy carry-on weight limit), I figured the card was in there.
I could have looked into taking some sort of action at this moment, but in hindsight, that wouldn't have really 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 started my research as to what to do, but the hotel had a dismal wifi and I had no data roaming on my phone. 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."
As I sip on my glass of Heartland sitting down to write, a bartender wearing black denim short-shorts fades out "Fight For Your Right" blasting off the PA and switches to "Englishman in New York." It makes me chuckle. She shrugs and says "I figured it probably wasn't your style." She was correct.
This is my second or third time I got to stay in ShimoKita, the first place in Tokyo that I, after more than a dozen visits in three decades, felt like I could possibly live in. And as much fun as I've had in every trip I made, I was never sold on the idea because, for better or worse, Tokyo is a lot to take in.
On top of my cringe list is the cost of public transpo. You can eat cheap by hitting 7-elevens and Famimas, soba stands, or any of the American franchise fast foods that are executed in the signature Japanese precision. Looks like Airbnb will be tacitly tolerated until 2020, so the accommodations can be reasonable. But if you wanna run around and explore every corner and neighborhood, you will end up spending some dough on public trans. And unlike Berlin or Paris, there is no one pass to "rule them all.” There's the popular Japan Railpass which only covers JR lines and can be useful if you plan to stretch outside of Tokyo, but in the metropolitan area you'll most likely end up using subways and other regional lines outside of the Railpass eligibility. The worst part, though, is that it is MAD INTENSE.
There you go. Even Tokyo residents don’t have all of this figured out, since they often restrict themselves to certain lines (and their surrounding areas) which they have the commuter passes for, and that is almost the only way you get any discount for trains. Pasmo, Suica or any prepaid IC card options are certainly the way to go, as they can get you pass through any turnstiles at any station regardless of lines and companies, but the discount you get is minuscule.
Another kicker; you cannot use a credit card to purchase, or charge (add values to) these IC cards. And , once you get used to the convenience of these little suckers, might as well replace your visa in your wallet with one of these charged up to a few hundred bucks. You can use this at almost any convenience stores and vending machines for any quick fix for coffee, water, sandwiches, musubis and booze. And about when you start loving it, you drop it on the floor that millions of Tokyoites walk all over, and there goes your $45 that any teenager can pick up and use because it’s a fucking prepaid and not a credit or ATM card you can report lost or stolen.
Also, unless you need to get to a specific destination in a timely manner, hailing a cab is not worth it. And in my personal view, average cab drivers in Tokyo are no longer as knowledgeable as they once was. A lot of them seems to have come from elsewhere, looking for a job after being let go in the everlasting depression. Uber The only time you'll need to would be after the last train, which sneaks up on you quickly especially when you've been partying.
What would you do; dash to catch the last train like locals, or push through till the first train like locals?
Then comes another factor; I eat and drink like there’s no tomorrow while I’m there. I just can’t hold back. FYI, Japanese food is not always healthy; carb heavy, salty and fatty. The most dangerous are the izakayas, which would stay open until the last patron leaves, and there are too many to count that are tucked into every tiny back aisle. You think America campions small businesses, you think again - there are literal miniature-sized-businesses everywhere; some brand new, some centuries old. I almost never go back to the same establishment twice.
Except for a few, like Lion; a “masterpiece cafe” sitting right in the now-shadier part of Shibuya since 1926, by presenting daily classical “concert” programs via one of the most gigantic, gorgeous and the oldest sound systems you’ll ever see in real life. The thing’s capital-case MASSIVENESS reminds me of organs I’ve seen in many european churches and halls. Their objective has been to provide the closest environment possible to sitting at these halls, back when attending any concert or even acquiring a legit sound system would’ve been a luxury beyond civilians’ budget. Of course they don’t allow any photography. I usually try my hardest to enter the premise and make my way upstairs as discreetly as possible, order my coffee and just chill. Not just to enjoy the sound and the discovery, but also to enjoy the quiet which is a rarity in this ever-awake society. I’ve seen some poor dads drop in here just to take a good nap on their lunch breaks. It’s kinda like going to a buddhist temple, only the alter is the sound system and the record collection. Believe me they look pretty fucking holy.
One thing that makes Tokyo very unique is its ambivalence, the co-existence of old and new, radical and traditional, self-restraint and uber-greed. As I mentioned in my Singapore post, some of the Asian metropolis have gotten Tokyo beat in some aspects, but this manic chaos in a fragile order is something that keeps drawing me in. All these polar-opposite elements that are forced to inhabit the limited space have had a major impact in modern-Japanese psyche and the creativity which led to forge this strange mutant of eastern and western (equal parts American and European) arts/culture, eventually giving birth to what we know and love.
ShimoKita, where I started writing this post, is just the case in point. Only a few stops away from Shibuya is a tiny neighborhood where residential, commercial and cultural quarters are interlaced in a seemingly harmonious manner. Widely known for the row of vintage clothing boutiques and the indie music scene, they have almost everything Shibuya or Shinjuku has with even more edge and quirk, while maintaining an old-school small town vibe.
While I was enjoying a gorgeous breakfast of chicken and basil toast at a modest but hip bakery cafe with very limited seatings, a lively grandma walked in and picked up a few of their artisan bread rolls only to realize that she had left her purse at home. While she counted all the change she had in her sweatpant pocket, a young clerk suggested that she pays when she'd come back later, but she insisted on walking home and back. A young one felt he couldn't let her do that for a mere few bucks, but eventually the Gram got her way and came back with a few bills within minutes.
Come to think of it, this might've been the moment that I thought I could possibly live here. #grannylove
I have a stock response whenever the conversation comes to where I'm from; "Love the place, hate the people."
Toyama literally means "rich with mountains." As meniotned in the earlier post, I was raised surrounded by 10,000+ feet of mountain ranges and a plankton-rich gulf that produces some of the best seafood in Japan. In the last decade, Buri (yellowtail) from the port city of Himi has grown into the Kobe-beef of sashimi that gets traded in Tokyo for way more money than we ever used to spend. I'm never reluctant to drink out of any faucet which connects to the water source in the said mountains we call Tateyama, the guardian deities of our land. The neighborhood grocery stores my mom frequent carry produces that come from no further than 5 miles away. The prefecture is known for the highest ratio of rice patties per arable land, the highest rate of home ownership, the highest rate of high/middle school graduation.
Then I have to list things about people; once, upon telling them that I've been living in LA for years, I was asked to "say something in English.” Growing up we only had access to 4 TV channels, 2 FM radio stations and one dance club. They'd never heard of Frank Zappa, Bobby McFerrin or Gamelan. They'd consistently vote for Liberal Democratic Party, GOP of Japan which has ruled since post-war Japan with the exceptions of few years here and there. They have this strange habit of staring each other down when walking by, almost like sizing you in whatever ways. Above all that, I never felt that I belonged there; outside of a few dear friends, there weren't many that I got to connect. As a mouthy chubby kid who "comes from money” I was bullied, and even after that was over I felt alienated. Save the details; I was miserable, and dead set on getting the fuck out of this place. Then I got myself a girl which eventually put everyone involved in a distress. Looking back, I see that we were all naive and overreacting, but on top of it all, while I was partying my education away, my father was diagnosed with cancer and 6 months later dead. After that, coming home became even less appealing. The situation at home is not much better, but I couldn’t spend 8 weeks traveling Asia and not spend some time there.
It was the longest solo stay in Toyama since I left, and the longer I stayed the happier I felt; not for me but for the people of Toyama. This is no longer the sleepy nowhere-town I grew up.
There's a brand new museum that has Picasso, Pollock, Chagall and more with a quirky rooftop playground overlooking the entire city. Another museum specialized in glass art (featuring installations by Dale Chihuly) also serves as a city library where kids come in to finish their homework. The old city center (which does not look old anymore) hosts a monthly market with craft beer vendors and live performance, along with an arthouse cinema, hipster coffeeshops and a pretty damn decent burger joint that puts Umami to shame. The JR station, now welcoming visitors from Tokyo via Shinkansen, offers too many dinner/souvenir options for me to cover them all. As a whole, the city seems quietly radiant and devoid of that depressing and insidious atmosphere I used to despise. I don't doubt that it still lacks many of the amenities that other major cities offer, and the population is still in decline. That being said, I kept hearing that many in my generation have been coming home after spending some time elsewhere, finding Toyama a much better environment to raise kids and/or start a business.
Then there was a healthy amount of nostalgia at work. Rather than driving, I got on a bike and rode around wherever I felt like; the places I used to frequent or somewhere that I'd only been once or twice. Some place that I knew that someone I knew used to go to. Everywhere I went had a tinge of familiarity that either evoked certain emotion or bring back imageries that's been stowed away in memory. I even reunited with the old friends whom I hadn't seen for 25 years. This was the first time that I really got to rediscover and enjoy myself in Toyama.
But I'd always known that it wasn't Toyama that I didn't wanna come back to.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.