Day 31: Life As an Immigrant for One Hour

She doesn’t smile for governments.

I was born in America with a handsome Asian face, thus I always felt like a bit of an outsider. I didn’t know how trite my perspective was until 2013. I walked for an hour in my wife’s shoes and realized how she experienced this country as a non-citizen legal resident.

My wife and I were heading back from a week-long trip in Europe. There were two lines at U.S. Customs in Washington, D.C. — one for citizens like myself and one for “others.” I headed towards the empty citizens line, but my wife pulled me back and said, “I have to go in this one.”

The queue was enormous. Families of all shades of color waited impatiently to be admitted into the land of the free and home of the brave. I think I saw someone playing a morose song on a fiddle. Everything was sepia-toned.

As I inched closer to the customs agent, I kept looking at the other line, longingly, wondering what could have been. Near the end of the line, I finally asked one of the agents if my wife could also use the citizens line.

“Of course, she can!”

I gave my wife a look, and her face blushed with embarrassment. A few people behind us laughed at us as we awkwardly crossed through the lines and walked right up to the customs agent sitting patiently in his booth.

I was processed almost immediately.

My wife, however, endured a few more obstacles: photographic fingerprinting, incessant questioning about her activities and personal life, and even a blood and urine sample (okay, not the last one, but still.)

Finally, we were both approved to enter our country of residence, but I was surprised by what I saw. “Is this what you have to do every time you come to the country?” I asked.

“Every time. I’m used to it by now, I guess.”

My wife came to this country on a Fulbright scholarship. She earned a master’s degree and recently a Ph.D. in sociology. She has paid her taxes every year for eight years and avoided breaking the law. She’s awesome.

Yet, for that one hour, I saw how my country viewed her: outsider, foreigner, suspicious individual — Other. It didn’t seem fair… dare I say un-American. When I was young, I questioned why people didn’t have an unyielding sense of loyalty and belonging to this country and its government.

Now that I’m older, I sometimes question why people do.


Write with intention. Think with compassion.

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Lee Ngo

Lee Ngo

Write with intention. Think with compassion.

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