Today is a special day. It marks the day of multiple first-times. On January 20th, 1998 I got on the airplane for the very first time. I flew half-way around the world, landed in LAX, and set foot on a foreign continent for the first time. I consider myself well travelled—I criss-crossed most of Europe, have been to the sea, ate stuff most of you would consider weird (watch out Andrew Zimmern—you’ve got competition!), and met lots of people with whom I’m still in contact. But there was something different about the way I felt when I arrived to the U.S. of A. It was a sense of conclusion for me. For some reason, I felt like there would be no going back. It felt like a this was a final stop. No more gypsying around, living in this city/country or that for a while. Though I admit I loved that. Nothing gives you more perspective about various cultures and peoples unless you live with them, eat with them, speak their language.
Today marks 15 years since I came to America. I thought I’ve seen it all until I landed at LAX. I could not believe the diversity of people trying to come to the country where dreams come true, many of which were turned away (sadly). When I saw those terrified, desperate faces, I thought I would be one of them. I’ve seen films in which potential immigrants had to cross the desert or were stuffed in freight trains or car trunks, etc. I was no Prince like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, who could walk about wherever he pleased, afford an apartment, diamonds, a hot-tub in his living room… (oh, wait, that was his “butler” but still). I would surely be turned away as well.
At LAX, the line toward the customs counter crawled like and injured mollusk. With each step I took, I grew more anxious. I heard, “Follow the blue line, sir,” and when I saw the man who was addressed by a stern-looking customs officer, I realized that he would be immediately put on an outbound plane to wherever he came from. Blue line was a bad line. Then, “Follow the yellow line, madam”, and an Indian lady and her family dressed in vibrant colors shuffled off to obscurity. The yellow line, as I later found out, led to a waiting room in which one had to wait until her/his suspicious looking paperwork was processed or destroyed. At this point I was afraid of lines of any color…and the stern customs office especially, with a voice sharper than a razor blade.
By the time I reached his counter, I shook like an aspen tree. I handed over my passport and visa. The officer looked at my papers and … a miracle—he smiled! “So you’re bringing ten thousand dollars in your luggage?” he asked. I stared at him dumbfounded. I knew English well enough to understand what he was saying (unlike the hundreds of people before me), but I didn’t comprehend where he got ten thousand dollars. He showed me the paperwork I filled out on the airplane (which is something everyone has to do before they enter the US—a declaration of what you are bringing and where you will be staying). It turned out that in my nervous state, I added a zero to the thousand dollars I had as spending money in my wallet. I awkwardly tried to explain that I, by no means, have or have ever even seen ten thousand dollars. He laughed, stamped my passport, and said: “Welcome to America. And don’t forget to go to Disneyland.”