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."
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. Currently travelblogging at #beatvagabond and working on new material.