Breathe Free

by jkatejohnston

2 June 2016

Dear Max,

A few days ago, I was trying to write about immigration and why I think it’s great. It’s not a subject I’m qualified to write about, but I have some other people’s writing in mind, and I’m going to spend a few days on that.

This first piece is from Bob Blaisdell’s great, nothing-like-it Have They Got Stories To Tell. It’s about Bob teaching in New York City and his students, who come from all over the world. About half the book is the students’ writing. This is from a travel story by Ana. In the story, she’s visiting friends in Japan, working illegally and having many adventures. She’s from Peru. And now she wants to come to the USA:

The day I went to the American Embassy I dressed up with the best dress I had. I would try to make them believe I had money.   I was wearing high heels that felt as if they were choking my feet. I guess because they were new and I wasn’t use to wearing shoes at all but sneakers only for about two years. My heart was pounding like crazy, trying to fill out the little application sheet they had in a not too big room full of people mostly Japanese. I finished filling out the application using my poor knowledge in the English language. Actually I pretty much guessed what those questions meant. It was the first time I had to fill out a visa application. I guess that is why I was so surprised that the application would have questions such as crimes committed in one’s own country or diseases that one might have had. While reading those questions and answering no to all of them, I wondered if there was ever somebody who did actually answer yes to any of those questions; I think not.

There I was on the line, getting ready to be next, when I saw the person who was going to interview me. He was a totally gringo kind of guy. Tall as a basketball player, blond as the corn, and proud as a bottle of Budweiser. As soon as I got to the window, he asked for my passport. I had it in my hands, so I just put it in front of him. However, as soon as he saw that it was Peruvian, he refused to take it. “You have to go back to your country and get your visa there. This is for Japanese people only,” he said, pushing my passport back to my side of the window. I pushed my passport back to his side and told him that I didn’t understand what he was saying and told him that I needed somebody who spoke Spanish to communicate with. The guy was getting very annoyed by my sturdiness, he would push my passport and airplane tickets back to my side in a ruder and ruder manner, telling me, “Youuu haveee tooo gooo backkk tooo yourrr countryyyyy.” As if the higher and longer he vocalized the faster I would understand what he was trying to tell me. Very soon all the people in the room knew what was going on. I didn’t care. I figured that my only chance to get a visa was with somebody who spoke Spanish. “They have to have somebody who speaks Spanish,” I kept on telling myself. After holding the line for about ten minutes, embarrassing myself, and annoying the poor gringo guy for the same amount of time, he took my passport and asked me to wait for somebody who would come to speak in Spanish to me. I waited for over an hour when they finally called my name. I approached the window from where my name was called and saw this guy who right away started talking to me in perfect Spanish. He told me basically the same thing the other guy had told me but in Spanish. While he was talking I guessed he was half Mexican because of the slightly Mexican accent he had. This made me feel more comfortable to talk to him. Actually to lie to him. “Why are you denying me the opportunity to visit your country,” I said. “I just want to stay there for a month or so. If it is because of the money, don’t worry, I have money to go there. Look, my father gave me these tickets because I just got into a very difficult to get into university. Come on, this is my last opportunity to travel around the world, after this I will have to study, study; I won’t have time to travel. Please, can I have it, please.” I kept on telling the guy how rich my family was, how ridiculous it was for me that I would leave my high standard of living in Peru to go to work as labor or god knows what in America. I would keep on talking this way every time he opened his mouth to say, “Yes, but . . .” He kind of kept quiet for a few seconds, then asked me, “How much money do you have to go to America?”

“Over three thousand dollars,” I said, hoping the guy didn’t ask me to pull them out.

“Do you have it in cash or in traveler’s checks?” he asked.

“I have it in cash, but I don’t have the money with me right now, I left it in the place where I am staying,” I said.

“How about you change that cash you have in traveler’s checks, it is always safer to carry traveler’s checks than cash, and come to see me tomorrow, with the traveler’s checks, under your name, of course. That is, if you don’t have a problem changing it.”

“No problem!” I said, trying to figure out how was I going to come up with that kind of money. “But, I might not be here tomorrow because I have some previous plans, but I’ll be here the day after tomorrow or the following day, at the latest. I’ll see you. Thank you very much.” And I left.

I was very disappointed at my interview with both of the immigration officers. I thought that I could fool them. I was wrong. My last chance to get the American visa was to come up with 3,000 dollars that I didn’t have. I would have to ask somebody to lend me the money, after all it was just for a matter of hours. I would get the money, exchange it for traveler’s checks, bring them to the American Embassy, show it to the officer, get my visa, exchange the money back in yenes and return the money from whom I got it in the first place. Now I just needed somebody who would trust me enough to lend me the money. Toshio, who was the most likely person, was in the Philippines, Fanny had credit all around her town, but she never carried money, her husband wouldn’t give it to her. My friend Tomiko didn’t have any money. They were pretty much all the people I knew I could count on, and that could trust me with such a large amount of money.

It was kind of late when I got home that night, but Matsuo was still awake. I made some tea and then he asked, “Do you want to talk about . . .” He didn’t finish, he stood up, held his tea with his left hand close to his body, pointed to the ceiling with his right arm and kept his head still, like looking at something on the wall across from us. I couldn’t help bursting into laughs, he looked so funny, wearing his pajamas, making his impersonation of the Statue of Liberty. A while later, I told Matsuo all that had happened in the American Embassy. Afterwards, I was tempted to ask him to lend me the money, but I didn’t, I didn’t want to embarrass myself asking him for the money. I knew he wouldn’t lend me the money, he hardly knew me. But I was wrong. He himself offered to lend me the money the very next day. He said I would lose at least 100 dollars with the exchange, but I didn’t care. Next day we left early in the morning, went to his bank, and withdrew 3,000 dollars from his savings account. He gave me the money and went to work. I exchanged the money for traveler’s checks and went to the American Embassy. I got on the only line there was and looked at the officer taking care of it. It was the same officer who wouldn’t take my passport! I was scared. I thought it was over, unless I could remember the other officer’s name and ask for him directly. However, I couldn’t remember his name.

I stood on the line, and the officer looked even meaner than the day before. I was about to go to the end of the line waiting for a miracle to happen, when I saw the other officer appear and take his place. I was full of anxiety. I wanted him to get over with the person ahead of me, so that he could take care of me before the blond mean officer came back. By the time he said, “Next,” my legs were totally out of control, shaking like crazy.

“Hi, do you remember me? I was here yesterday. I brought you the money you asked for. You know, the traveler’s checks,” I said, while he was looking at me like I was some sort of lunatic, talking in some ancient language completely incomprehensible to him. “You told me that if I changed the cash I have to traveler’s checks, you would give me the visa I need to visit America,” I said, trying to be as polite and friendly as I could.

“Oh! You’re the girl from Peru. I remember you now. But I didn’t say I would give you the visa, I said I would try to get you a visa. Now, let me get this to my supervisor and let’s see what happens. Okay?” he said, walking to the office in back of the counter.

I waited there for at least three hours. Maybe the guy was trying to delay the bad news, maybe they called Peru and found out that all I had said was just a bunch of lies. How could I have been so stupid and lied to an American immigration officer. Didn’t I know better than that? They probably have computers where they place your name and know everything they need to know about you. No! Impossible, they can’t do that. There I was in the waiting room deliberating with myself what Americans can and cannot do, when I heard my name called. I rushed to the window and received my passport back. I didn’t want to open it there because I was sure I was going to show emotion, whether they gave me the visa or not. I held my passport tight in my hands, until I reached the outside door. I opened it and there it was, a beautiful stamp, red and blue words written, “The United States of America Nonimmigrant Visa Issued at Tokyo.”

I think that was one of the happiest days of my life. I was going to America! The country where all the dreams can come true. The country where hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off. There would be the place I would call home.

That very same afternoon, I changed the money back to yenes and returned them to Matsuo. He was right, I lost over 150 dollars in the transaction, but it was more than worth it. I was going to America!

Eight days after I got my visa I was in New York. Three weeks later, I was working, checking bags and packets, in a supermarket. Two years after I arrived in Kennedy Airport I was attending fulltime college and working as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant.

After living four years in New York, I have, many times, heard all the criticism American people have against immigrants. From the rude “Go back to your country, bastards, you are taking the jobs away from us, real Americans,” to the condescending, “Poor people who come to America with the erroneous idea that they would become rich over night or they, poor creatures, thought that money was hanging on the trees in America.” I particularly didn’t think that money was hanging on the trees, however I did think that America would give the opportunity to be myself. I guess it is kind of difficult for an American to understand why so many people want to come here. Being an immigrant myself, I guess I could tell you that it is like getting accepted to go to Harvard or Yale, you know it will be hard, it will be painful, there will probably be many nights that you won’t be able to sleep, and most of all that you won’t have immediate rewards for your efforts. Yet, knowing all of this to be the truth, would you go? If you had the chance?

When I first started looking through the book for this story, I wanted to use it as evidence in my argument against Trump. And it’s great evidence. But as I paged through and started reading here and there, I lost interest in my argument, Trump, who my dad votes for, Our Democracy. I just wanted to read the stories, including Bob’s story.

That’s what great writing does. It makes you bigger than your opinions. (It’s temporary, but I’ll take it.)