I meet a lot of people on this journey. One of the common questions they’ll ask is: When will you go home? Rather than saying I never want to return to the U.S. again, I simply tell them I go home once a year. But really I’ve got no home. I’m a migrant with a passport. This article will be the first in a series of posts detailing my six months of failed attempts to reintegrate into American society circa September 2015-March 2016.
I arrived at LAX via Philippine Airlines on a warm day in mid-September. After a 14 hour flight, my legs felt like jelly. For some unspecified reason, we all sat in the plane for an extra hour after landing. Trying to access the airport WiFi proved useless. When they finally allowed us to exit the aircraft, I stood in the customs line. The WiFi icon at the top of my phone showed one bar but it was enough to send a Facebook message to my uncle. Clearly, he’d never taken a transpacific flight since he resorted to cursing me out for the extra hour or two it took to exit the plane and wait in the customs line.
“You can’t use your phone here.” An elderly TSA agent scolded.
“I’m just messaging my uncle to tell him I’m OK. My flight was delayed.”
The crusty old bitch shook her head and threatened to have me questioned if I continued to use my phone. Yep, I was definitely back in the U.S. Ten minutes off the plane and I already felt the joys of dealing with a militant police state.
When I approached the customs window, an obese Caucasian female with a messy bun looked at my passport, looked at me, then looked back at my passport.
“It doesn’t look like you.” She said.
“Yeah, I get that a lot. It’s an old picture. I was a dumb college student wearing too much makeup.”
“Your hair also looks different.”
“People change their hair.” I snapped.
I think she sensed my frustration. “How long were you gone?”
“One year.” I said.
She glanced over my documents once more for good measure. “Welcome home.”
I rushed through to find somewhere to buy a prepaid phone card for my unlocked, GSM phone from Hong Kong. The flight had landed in the middle of the night so everything was already closed. The WiFi had conked out as well. I searched for a payphone, inserted a few quarters, and dialed my uncle old school gangster style letting him know what gate I stood at.
I hadn’t seen Uncle Ted for almost ten years. He’d aged gracefully, but still looked scrawnier than a Chinese street cat. He gave me a hug and we got into his truck for the long haul to Fontana.
“I really want some Taco Bell.” I remarked. “I haven’t ate Taco Bell for a year.”
On that stretch of road, we’d come across three Del Tacos, several In n’ Outs, and a few other west coast fast food specialties, but no Taco Bell. Exasperated, I gave in to eating at Wiener Schnitzel.
When our truck pulled into the driveway, the sound of dogs barking jolted me alert. Back when I was sixteen, Uncle Ted had seven dogs. Now, they were down to two that I’d never seen before: a medium sized golden retriever whose name I can’t remember and a small tan mutt named Davie.
To be honest, I never considered myself much of a dog person. My parents had always preferred cats. Also, I’m pretty ill-equipped to take care of myself so I’m not sure how I’d be able to care for something as needy and time-consuming as canines.
The first night I slept on the couch. I awoke the next morning to flies surrounding my body, buzzing around my ears incessantly. A pot of coffee sat on the kitchen counter. I poured myself a fresh cup then returned to the living room and switched on the TV. The dogs had also awakened, running into the room just to feverishly hump in front of the table.
“Um, why don’t you get your dogs fixed?” I asked Uncle Ted. He never answered the question.
Aunt Faith had switched to part-time work in order to care for her ailing, morbidly obese mother. They both sat around the house all day watching trashy daytime TV like Jerry Springer. Occasionally, the sound of groaning and moaning would interrupt whatever show I happened to be watching. God forbid doctors in the U.S. prescribe sufficient pain meds for a mobility-challenged senior citizen.
On the second day, I’d moved into the room in the back of the house next to Aunt Faith’s mother’s room. Day and night, I’d hear her groaning. If I left the door open, a scrawny feline would enter, feces hanging from it’s back end, leaving little trails of diarrhea about the concrete floor.
“Why don’t you guys put down that cat?” I asked. “It’s clearly dying.”
“I can’t go through that again.” Aunt Faith said. “We had to put down a lot of animals before. My heart can’t take it.”
“My heart can’t take watching an animal suffer and slowly die.” I replied after taking a puff of the joint we’d been passing around.
“When you have your own pets, you can make that decision by yourself.” She snipped.
As the days went on, I started to get more and more annoyed with Aunt Faith’s attitude and behavior, the flies, the dying cat, the dogs’ never-ending hump fest, and the groaning old woman.
Aunt Faith had some neighbors who also happened to be close friends living across the street. They kept calling me by my birth name which I hated because nobody calls me that ever. I hate that my bio mom gave me such a stupid, old-fashioned name.
Aunt Faith’s best friend’s daughter, Chantelle, was one of the people I hated the most. The first time I came to California at sixteen years old, I’d gotten in a big fight with her after she ran up the phone bill making international calls to guys from the Internet and blamed it on me. I’d chased her with a bat, determined to beat the ever-loving crap out of that useless fat slut. That day Aunt Faith had become uncharacteristically angry to the point of locking me in my room and threatening to put me in a mental institution. It’s no surprise Chantelle slept with a black guy and had a mixed toddler by the ripe age of twenty-one. The kid’s name is James. I immediately felt sorry for him. He’ll grow to resent this family the same way I do.
The second week, Chantelle brought James over to play. The house phone rang. Aunt Faith picked it up and immediately began screaming. My Aunt and Uncle’s adopted son, Arthur, a high-school drop out with a knack for computers, had married a Mexican man. It took my conservative family forever to accept, though I believe they still don’t treat him all that well.
I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I heard my white aunt drop the n-word mid-conversation within earshot of James. I tried to explain to her why she shouldn’t say that, but she shrugged me off.
I didn’t want to believe Aunt Faith is racist. But I’ll never forget the last day at their house. I sat in their bedroom watching Springer as usual. James occupied himself with the dogs. One episode about cheaters showed a black man and a white woman before cutting to commercial break.
“Of course, black men always cheat.” Aunt Faith said as she shoved tortilla chips in her fat mouth.
When they returned from commercials, it turned out the blonde white woman had cheated on the black man. He had proof and he was ready to break it off with her. She said she didn’t care because she could get any d*ck she wanted.
I grinned at Aunt Faith. “What was that about all black men being cheaters?”
That same evening she continued to bug me about not having a job. However, without a car, living efficiently in California is impossible. I did buy a bike from Wal-Mart but I only got about two rides out of it before the inner tube blew.
They wouldn’t let me borrow one of their two cars for job searching. I thought perhaps Aunt Faith’s sister, Aunt Sue might help. The first time I saw her in twenty years, she strolled into the house hunched over a metal cane and gave me a half-hearted hug. She was the only openly liberal atheist in the family so I thought she might be sympathetic to the practicality of my situation. I asked if I paid for gas and insurance if I could borrow her car from time to time for job interviews.
She smiled, shook her head, looked me dead in the eye and muttered, “You poor thing. You’ve always had so little in your life.”
I was taken aback by Aunt Sue’s condescending attitude. Even the most self-proclaimed liberal member of my family wouldn’t help me a little bit.
“I don’t need your pity.” I scoffed and sprinted to my room to start packing my bags.
On my way out the next morning, a few tears welled up in the corner of my eyes. I hadn’t seen that they’d still kept some old photos from my childhood. I couldn’t help but contemplate what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been born into this family.
I took a train to L.A. proper and stayed in a West Hollywood hostel I’d found through AirBnb. I tried to make it in L.A. on the public transportation system but that proved futile. Desperate and frustrated, I took a taxi to the airport car rental. Two weeks before my 25th birthday, I still had to pay double because I was supposedly “underage”. Never mind that I could buy beer for three years and legally live on my own for six. I tried to negotiate with them but no dice. It’s America. No one ever cuts you a break, especially not greedy corporations and insurance companies.
I bit the bullet and signed the papers, forgetting that after years of living in New York and Asia, I wasn’t confident in my driving abilities. Fortunately, I had a side-kick: a blue-haired, dark-skinned, combat-boot-wearing, gay boy from London who taught me a thing or two about make-up. His name was Rob. I’d met him at the hostel and we’d quickly become fast friends. We both hated L.A. with a passion. We made jokes about eating ice cream to celebrate if a massive earthquake hit the place. People say New Yorkers are rude, but actually I can respect people from the Big Apple. Their perceived rudeness is simply a manifestation of genuinely honest frustration with the slow pace at which the rest of the world moves. In L.A., people are just mean for the sake of being mean and faker than Kim Kardashian’s robbery in Paris. Plus, you have to drive everywhere due to massive amounts of urban sprawl. F*ck that.
Rob and I tried going to various clubs for work but we didn’t fit the standard; a nice way of saying we’re too black and alternative. They only want boring blondes. The day we rented the car, I sat with Rob in a darkened side street waiting for him to get a laptop from his uncle. We had enough time to roll and smoke two blunts before the guy even picked up the phone. I’d fallen asleep in the car only to be swiftly awakened by shouting from outside the passenger’s seat. Rob had a crowbar in hand while he stared down a portly, gray-bearded man in a plain white button-up.
“You better give me my sh*t right now!” Rob screamed.
“Get off my property.” The uncle replied, throwing the laptop bag on the ground near Rob’s feet.
Rob kicked his uncle’s car and fled to the passenger’s seat with the merch. We drove off in a hurry. I saw Rob’s uncle shaking his fist and running after the car in the rear-view mirror before I turned a corner.
“God, I hate it here.” Rob cried. “My family sucks. I just wanna go back to London.”
“My family sucks, too.” I replied. “That’s why good friends are important.”
I checked my Facebook and saw a message from the boy I’d been dating for three months in China. He wanted to break up, likely because I’d been gone for too long. I also couldn’t hold back the tears. I parked in an empty lot nearby. We slept in the car that night with the help of some Valium I’d brought from Thailand.
The following morning Rob decided we needed to find another AirBnb. He’d been staying at an old woman’s house in a Beverly Hills. I went there with a few friends to change clothes and get ready to party.
The old lady came in and started screaming at us to leave immediately or she’d call the cops.
“I paid for this place.” Rob shot back.
“You didn’t pay for all your friends to hang out here.” She said.
Rob began packing his things in a huff. We hailed an Uber to help him get out of there. Rob and I went to the L.A. LGBT center which sucks in comparison to the one in NYC. The LGBT center in L.A. only helps people under 25. I was two weeks away from being too old. Rob, at just 20 years old, had plenty of time to screw his life up as much as me.
After successfully dropping off our things, Rob decided to get some swag. We took the car to a nearby boutique selling designer goods. This place was selling socks for two hundred dollars. After looking around at the sub-par merchandise on display for outrageous prices, Rob suggested a nearby designer thrift store.
We entered the store only to immediately get followed around by Team Barbie. I didn’t plan on buying anything since I knew it would be more junk to carry around. I went to the dressing room to try on some clothes just so I could post pictures on Instagram. Five minutes later, I came out of the stall only to see Rob dashing out the door with a used Gucci bag. Bimbo #1 trailed after him. He had the car keys so I left everything behind and sprinted, but he’d already exited my line of sight. I called him several times. No answer.
Finally, I found a bar within walking distance, ordered a Guinness and waited for the phone to ring. Sure enough, it was Rob.
“Rob, what the actual f*ck?” I yelled. “How could you be such an idiot? We could have gotten arrested.”
“But we didn’t get arrested.” He replied casually. “Where are you now?”
“I’m at a bar next to a comedy club. Hurry up!”
I sighed with relief as Rob pulled the car around a half hour later. We did make-up in the rear-view mirror then swung over to some famous clubs in West Hollywood. On a Tuesday night, the bouncers weren’t checking IDs that closely so Rob was able to sneak into the club.
Our day time excursions involved trips to the LGBT center and Whole Foods in West Hollywood. Once while at a Whole Foods, I saw a man sitting at the table next to us. Overhearing his conversation, I couldn’t help but notice he had a remarkable wit about him; an East Coast flair.
Dan got a lot of rides in our car. We were the Three Hollywood Rejects. Unfortunately, several days later, Rob’s constant insults towards Dan wore thin.
“Yes, I know I haven’t showered recently. I’m too worried you’ll watch me and get a hard-on.” Dan chuckled.
“Get out!” Rob screamed. “You’re disgusting! You’re a filthy bum! Go wash your dick!”
Without saying another word, Dan exited the car and walked off into the distance. After that, Rob and I had a falling out. I also started to get tired of Dan’s moochy behavior; eerily reminiscent of an ex I had in New York who shared the same name and iron clad wit.
I had to return the rental car two days before my flight. Due to the additional age-related surcharges, I couldn’t afford to extend the time even for a couple more days. The day I returned the rental, I tried sleeping in the airport, but LAX, unlike other airports, doesn’t have any benches for lying down because the city is full of rich snobs who want to punish poor people. I walked to a Starbucks near the airport and bought a large latte, opened my computer, then snoozed off from exhaustion. An employee came over to shake me awake. I found a five-star hotel and went into an empty stall and lied down. No more than thirty minutes later, some staff came into the bathroom to bother me, knocking on the stall door.
“You can’t sleep in there.” She said.
“I’m not sleeping. My stomach is uncomfortable.”
“Ok, well it looks like you’re lying on the floor. Why don’t you come out?”
“Can a person not use the bathroom in peace?” I shot back.
“You’ve got five minutes.” She replied. “If you’re still here, I’m going to call the police.”
Honestly, I wanted to kill that woman. It was one of the most humiliating moments of my entire life. Fortunately, I didn’t have to face her. I had no idea what she looked like. I sheepishly slinked out of the bathroom, in search of somewhere, anywhere to sleep undisturbed.
I took a bus to the beach in mid-day and sprawled out in my bikini with an eye-mask. Sleeping on a beach in the daytime proved to be the only way I could get any real shut-eye. No one would disturb me there. I could also get a free shower. Win-win.
By this point, I’d really had enough of L.A. I spent my last night on a subway platform surrounded by homeless people. Inside the subway car, blood stained the walls behind a shoe-less man. I counted down the hours until I could board a plane to New York City.