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 on me at all times since it's only needed to re-enter the US, and I felt it'd be safer if it was tucked away somewhere. 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 that I left the card in there.
I could have taken 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 in the said storage but no luck. Checked into a small, Buddhist-theme hotel near Shin-Sekai, looked through every pocket on my bag and clothing, but still no card in sight. Where could I have possibly left it? Called up KIX, Pudong, mom in Toyama but no record or sign of my most important form of identification. Slowly coming to terms with the chance that I have lost 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.
One of the toughest nights to fall asleep.
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, seemingly annoyed just to speak to me, and suggests that I call USCIS. It's 6pm PDT, They JUST CLOSED. Ticked off and helpless, I start to dig in online. Turns out that 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 deeper into my palms, sitting outside Tully's with countless cherry trees in full bloom.
I had to miss my return flight to LAX, and retreat to Toyama. Sort things out. Our place is a mess, maybe our dog Madoka had hidden it. So I hopped on a train back to where I was not even two weeks prior.
Upon arriving home, I started flipping everything in sight while being on hold with USCIS and, to much of my dismay, couldn't get any himan on the phone at any of the US offices. Upon deciding to file this goddamn form, I called back US Embassy and Consulate General to make an appointment to submit, then got shut down by the same persons on the phone earlier, with the same "We don't deal with USCIS matters. There is NO USCIS office in Japan" lines. Are you telling me that I'm 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?
I did find one piece of info on multiple official sources that, in general if you have even an expired green card that has been valid for 10 years, CBP would let you in. Upon discussing this with a few immigration lawyers, while it seems to be valid option it's ultimately at a CBP officer's discretion whether I get in or not (even with the aforementioned boarding foil that I was gonna have to fly to Beijing/Seoul for). 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, taking a risk that I might eventually get rejected.
A week pass, and I fly 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 airline clerk from earlier, now confused and pissed off, throws a boarding pass on the desk without o word. She didn't even look at me when I thanked her. I was not anticipating this much push back even before the touchdown, so who knows what the CBP would do?
Now at LAX. The immigration gates seem a bit chaotic; way more 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. Customs and Border Protection, here I come.
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. It just seemed like 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 menioned 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 locals 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 per capita, the highest graduation rate of high/middle school in the country.
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 each other up, inspecting for any extraordinary element. 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 growing out of that misery I still 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 both our families in distress. Looking back, I see that we were simply naive and overreacting, but there and then I blamed myself for giving my father a huge grief, which in my paranoia worsened his cancer which we learned of 3 months after I moved to Osaka, and 6 months later he was gone. After that, coming home became more of a guilt trip than a relaxing vacay.
The vibe at home was 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.