How to Be Extraordinary in America

The O-1 extraordinary ALIEN Visa, aka the Genius Visa, is granted to an ALIEN who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, and who has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements. To qualify, you either produce your Nobel Prize certificate (do they even give certificates?) or meet three out of the ten requirements that are equivalent to a Nobel.

You begin the process of obtaining this elusive immigration status after graduating from your MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University with feverish optimism and hope since Justin Bieber has one. You have one year from August 2015 until your student visa expires. One year to figure out how you can stay in America as a writer. One year before saying goodbye to the life you thought you built in graduate school. You are twenty-seven years old, tall, tanned, and Thai, with as limited an octave vocal range as the Biebs. You think you stand a chance.

Justin Bieber - My World Tour 2011 - Sentul International Convention Center 23 April 2011.
Image courtesy Adam Sundana

You Google artists with O-1s. The list is daunting: Adele. Benedict Cumberbatch. Wolverine. Director of The Terminator. Regina George. Posh Spice. David Beckham. Sergey Brin. Pelé. Playboy Playmate, Shera Bechard. Albert Einstein, if he were crossing the border today.

These ALIENS are part of a list of Nobel, Oscar, Emmy, Director’s Guild, SAG, and Academy Award winners. Even the Biebs, six years younger than you, has a Grammy. Discouraged, you try to find authors who have O-1s: Salman Rushdie. Yiyun Li. Mario Vargas Llosa. They were bookless once. You discover many testaments to how difficult this Everest-of-a-visa is, and almost all O-1 visa holders ask to remain anonymous about their immigration statuses, as they will need to renew their visas at some point. No O-1 ALIEN is confirmed, so you make a guess since they weren’t born in America. Keeping this a secret is like being at a party with little green antennae sprouting from the top of your head, except everyone is too polite to point and scream.

You approach an immigration attorney in San Francisco, your adopted homewhere you live, to learn more about the requirements to be an Extraordinary ALIEN.

“Why can’t your job sponsor you with an H1-B?” she asks, propped up in her chair by a stiff wool suit.

You know the H1-B pursuit too well. You’ve watched friends toil away in tech companies, lose sleep in law firms, and strap-on surgical masks to forgo weekends in hospital emergency rooms, all for this traditional work visa. You were fresh out of college then in 2010, interviewing at Pfizer with your English degree to be a pharmaceutical sales rep. Right before you were hired, you checked the box that said, “Not a U.S. citizen.” Once your supervisor learned you require sponsorship to stay, he gave the job to an American.

You are older and wiser now. You explain to Stiff Suit that, “Authors aren’t sponsored on H1-Bs because it’s not a salaried job, and schools don’t sponsor non-tenured professors.”

It is as if you spoke an ALIEN language. “Then get a tenured job teaching,” Stiff Suit says.

You realize that would be a truly extraordinary feat, one worthy of the O-1, only you aren’t a magician. You thank her for her time then scurry out of her penthouse office to join the horde of ordinary below.

In the President of Fake Tans and Terrible Toupees America, immigrants are categorized as such:

—Bad Hombres
—Muslim Jihadists
—Foreign Workers Who Steal American Jobs
—Trophy Wives

His rallies are greeted with hoots and hollers and amens. This is not the first time you learn about what Americans think of ALIENS.

When you were rejected from Pfizer, you found whatever legal nonimmigrant work you could get that pertained to your degree. But nobody categorized you with such venom when you took a freelance writer position earning thirty-five percent less than your American counterparts. Stooped over a desk in a makeshift office at a daily-deals startup, you wrote all of the copy for the website from 9 to 5. Each daily coupon cost $20 a write-up. Your supervisor was ecstatic that you were desperate enough to work there for less, all in the hopes of getting some kind of Willy Wonka golden visa to stay.

You’ve never been called a genius in your entire life. Your father still repeats what your first grade teacher reported about you: easily distracted. Remember being locked down in a dining room chair, being told to recite the times tables before breakfast, because everyone else knew them. Remember being on probation during your first year of college. Funny, you spoke English fluently, but didn’t understand American grades. You graduated college with a GPA less than a 3.0 and were in the 85% percentile of your GREs. Writing for you was a way to avoid being tested, and maybe you’re good at it. Maybe it is the only thing you can do because you get back up once knocked down. There is no other way. The O-1 visa wasn’t just for more opportunities to pursue what you love. You are sick of your parents comparing you to their friends’ kids. Sick of their friends laughing at what you do—Is it journalism? Let me tell you about an idea I have about a novel! When are you going to give this up? When are you moving back?

While everyone else funds their writing with rich spouses, restaurant server salaries, and corporate bonuses, your bind was this: your work must directly relate to your major area of study. San Francisco State University made this very clear. You’d wait the shit out of tables if given the chance. At the International Students Office, an advisor told you that the entire point of giving international students a year of employment authorization upon graduating is to give you a chance to contribute to the American workforce. Use those skills you learned from this American school! Show us what you got! Make us proud!

You: “Most writers work unrelated writing jobs because it pays more.”
ISO Advisor: “Well, you can’t. Is there a way you can get an editorial job? Another copywriting gig?”
You: “I can. I don’t know if I’d want to work on my manuscript if I’ve been writing all day.”
ISO Advisor: “You’re going to have to unless you want to break the law.”

You find an immigration attorney in New York willing to take your case, after ten attorneys have said no. One even encouraged you to just get married.

“All extraordinary ALIENS must meet at least three out of the ten requirements as defined by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,” your no-nonsense attorney says. “Due to the nature of your profession, you won’t be commanding a higher salary than your peers, so skip that one.”

You skim through the requirements. There are more you do not meet.

“Do I need a book?” you ask.

“You don’t need a book, but a book would be good,” she says. “Ninety-five percent of the O-1 depends on you. You can focus on getting publications and awards while we work on the last five percent, which are letters of recommendation and job prospects.

“So does that mean my case is not as strong without a book?”

“Not necessarily, but it would be good. Can you write a book in a year?”

Requirement 1: ALIEN must produce the following forms of documentation that the ALIEN has achieved national or international recognition for achievements.

Do you write to be recognized, or do you gain recognition to write? How many free demo tapes and YouTube videos did Justin Bieber send before he caught Usher’s attention? How many years did he spend in the studio before releasing his first album?

Image courtesy of Barney Moss

ALIEN grates you, even though you know it refers to an individual belonging to a foreign country or nation. Don’t Americans already consider you to be extraterrestrial? Their eyes widen when they stutter to pronounce your name: “Where is that from?” Their mouths purse when they think about how far Hong Kong is: “Is it a part of Japan?” Their brows connect for their final question: “What were you doing in Hong Kong if you’re Thai?”

You’ve been telling them since graduate school: “There are individuals of different ethnicities and nationalities that populate other countries too.” Then they compliment you on your English as though no other place abroad speaks or teaches it. Funny, no one has ever complimented Justin Bieber on his English.

Why do you want to stay in America so badly? Your parents ask you all the time. You think back to your early childhood in Bangkok with them where nothing outside the house was ever stable. One day you were free to walk the streets, the next day you had to stay home because the tanks were out. You didn’t know this was something be scared about until you came to America and saw what life was like without them.

One summer during graduate school, the red shirts stormed the airport and blocked everyone from leaving. Your mother called you to tell you how she helped the opposition. She had left the apartment to spend hours on her feet, bandaging wounds, buying hundreds of pork buns to feed yellow shirts. She spent her early days of retirement on the streets instead of gardening fourteen floors above. You told her to be careful.

She said, “It’s good that you’re there.” You can’t say you wished you were back. A master’s degree was a convenient excuse to be separated. You weren’t proud when you told her you were studying, only to hang up the phone and close the door to problems you once were a part of.

Why do you need political instability to prove that you want to stay? Why can’t you just want it?

Did the Biebs need reasons for wanting to leave Canada? The video of him singing to Usher is adorable. He is wearing his cap backwards in a Maple Leafs jersey, crooning to “U Got It Bad,” nailing every note. Isn’t it enough to want to do something with your life to move? For some reason, you don’t feel this is a good enough explanation—that wanting to move to a different country to write seems stupid, frivolous, as though a thirteen-year-old-boy who is now a superstar never had doubts in his head.

Download Tinder. Finding a husband seems easier than meeting the requirements of the O-1. Writing a profile directly uses the skills you learned in your MFA. Short, to the point sentences. Active voice. Verbs. Under a photo of you in a modest mid-calf dress in front of a classroom, your caption says: “Single, Thainese female looking for serious relationship. Green card holders and citizens only. Humor, a bonus.”

Requirement 2: ALIEN must produce the following forms of documentation that ALIEN performed and will perform a lead or starring role in productions or events, which have a distinguished reputation.

You ask your coffee date from Tinder (also an extraordinary ALIEN from Austria) what his accomplishments were to work at PayPal’s Headquarters in San Jose. He has an app that has been downloaded by 10,000 people. He describes it to be a “visually stimulating chrome extension to solve the time zone pain,” sounding like a marketing drone. You imagine the Biebs had no problem surrounding himself with his million fans after his debut with Usher. You wonder if your published story in a journal that has been read by 100 people will suffice.

Apply to over 60 residencies, fellowships, and conferences to build your résumé. You apply to even more jobs. You edit your 50,000-word short story collection to submit excerpts to fifty journals. There is always a prize to be won. Always someone younger and smarter than you applying. Always a more prestigious publication to be featured in. A fellowship that gives more money further away from California. An entry-level adjunct job that pays less. No one has ever told you that writing to be famous is a soulless act. Who are you writing for—the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or yourself?

Requirement 3: ALIEN must produce the following forms of documentation that ALIEN performed and will perform a lead, starring or critical role for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation.

San Francisco State’s department chair hires you in September 2015 to lead a creative writing class of one hundred students. Ecstatic that you could finally fund yourself a little longer and use this position for your visa petition, an older white man with Santa Claus fluff hair from your graduate program who also wanted the job ruins it for you. He lamented over post-interview drinks that it was hard to be him in these times as he competes with fresh-faced authors who don’t have families to take care of. You politely asked if he’d like to switch places. Would you like to read a hundred essays, sir? Would you like to work for a thousand dollars a month? Would you like to give me your citizenship?

You think you speak to a classroom full of American students, except two of them are Chinese. They refuse to raise their hands in class. “My English is not so good,” one of them emails you. Tell them you understand. The goal here is to write a story to get a grade. You are well aware of the system you were all born into and how to win. They are looking for a stamped sheet of paper to say that they passed. They will need this sheet of paper to say they belong behind an invisible educated line. You know this system. You are looking for a stamped sheet of paper to say that you deserve to remain behind a line patrolled by border officers.

You wear a human mask that hides your ALIEN face, a mask they recognize as similar to their own.

“I’m going to tell you that your antennae don’t exist,” you wished you said. “And with your hands cuffed behind your back, your chin on hard gravel, you’re going to say, what antennae?”

But instead you say, “My English wasn’t that great at some point. But I’m here, aren’t I?”

Writers are taught to accept rejections. Fifty residencies, fellowships, and conferences said no. This is not counting the ones that accept U.S. citizens only (Thanks, NEA!). Ten said yes. To your parents, getting accepted to a residency or conference is no accomplishment, especially if none of them pay salaries. “So you’re going to be a vagabond then, moving from one residency to another?” your dad asks. Traveling to write isn’t such a bad thing. At least you won’t have to pay rent.

Some of your graduate schoolmates call you crazy. Some of them ask you how you did it. Only a few of them respect your hustle. The same old white classmate with Santa Claus fluff hair asked you if you got your fellowships because of your position. “You know,” Cranky Santa Claus said gruffly, “because you’re diverse and all.”

“Why do you want to stay in America so badly, when you can come home where you’re wanted?” your parents ask.

You live an American movie life, adjacent to the Soul Cycle and a fluttering rainbow flag on Market and Castro, where fully nude men sit by the F train tables sipping hot coffee under the sun. There are covered yards and open yards and big dogs and small dogs and side roads with drunk men holding hands in fluorescent shorts, and you can’t imagine how you lived your life sneaking around dark, treeless streets in Hong Kong. Americans do what they want. They live the way they want to. There used to be a time when hiding in the dark was normal, when on walks home from high school, you thought, fitting in was necessary. You can scrounge for rent any way you want to. You can read in your pajamas and write by a table of naked men and nobody gives you a second look. You can admire two men kissing from afar and celebrate their infatuation with one another without judging. In many ways, you want to stay out in the open.

In the 1979 film Alien, the ALIENS spring out and latch themselves onto American faces. They somehow implant larvae inside living hosts that become carnivorous creatures exploding out from American chests and bellies. They are savage, predatory creatures whose singular goal is to propagate their species and murder other life forms that could pose a threat to them—like termites. Their only function is to find more hosts for implantation. This could explain how Americans see ALIENS.

There is a video from the U.S. Customs & Border Protection department that plays above the international arrivals line. It begins showing photographs of people of all different ethnicities with their country’s world wonder in the background. Americans like to feature diversity to represent the country as a melting pot.

“We are responsible for everyone’s safety and security,” a TV-officer says. “This is a routine process that ensures the safety of our nation’s immigration, customs, and agriculture laws. You will be asked, “What is the purpose of your trip today?”

You are sure no one has ever answered, “To give birth inside American bodies, and murder every American in this country!”

But all ALIENS are to be presumed guilty until proven innocent. All ALIENS are subjected to being questioned and searched first, just in case.

The only time you dream of committing murder is in line for security at the airport. Americans are slow. No matter how loud TSA agents shout, “Empty your water bottles!” or “Remove your laptops out of your bags,” or “Take off your shoes,” there is inevitably a slew of befuddled Americans who ask, “Does my IPad count as a laptop?” and “Is this water bottle small enough?”

Realize: Not everyone is a savvy, well-traveled, global citizen. In college, most of your American friends had never left the country. Most of them didn’t even own passports. You didn’t go to school in the middle of the country. You went to a private Catholic university where Louis Vuitton totes were considered appropriate school bags.

On the plane, Americans love to congregate around the bathroom to stretch their legs. Most of them are tall, unhappily crammed into tiny seats that lean forward. Most of them overstuff their carry-ons, seams breaking as they cram them into overhead bag spaces. Sometimes you’ll see an older man with earphones in, muttering meditation mantras near the cockpit. Sometimes, a woman teetering under the weight of baby-essentials-in-bags would hog the bathroom, and her child is nowhere to be found. None of these people are breaking the rule.

The moment a woman wearing a hijab is speaking on the phone in Arabic, TSA is called.

Image courtesy of Bernard Hermant

Here is a list of celebrities who have been held at the U.S. border:

Shah Rukh Khan
Irrfan Khan
Doctor Nefario

Assume that similar to Ian McEwan, author of Atonement, who was once denied entrance into America for saying that he would be getting a stipend for his talk at Washington State and according to a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, should have filed for a different visa, perhaps these celebrities had filed their visas incorrectly. In reality, although you don’t want to admit it, it is how they look and are perceived that kept them from entering. One wrote a song that could be interpreted as supporting a militant organization that America considered bad. Two have beards that are a shade too similar to the 9/11 terrorists. One carried too little cash in his pockets despite being a billionaire, and perhaps the officer thought he was just another ALIEN looking for a job.

You dress accordingly when boarding a flight into America: carry a designer bag. Slip into closed-toe shoes. Comb your hair. Do not give a reason for custom officers to hold you back, question your purpose of your trip, and detain you out of fear.

Your mark at customs has always been your face.

“This is random,” an officer said. He ushered you to a line of ALIENS who looked like they could be related to you. Another officer in a matching black windbreaker asked what was in your hand-carry.

“Nothing,” you said. You’ve learned that nothing you say is correct, and your face simply cues them to unzip your bag, rifle through your underwear, pull out bags of juicy pork jerky, moon cakes, dried oysters, red dates, instant Tom Yum noodles, Airwaves chewing gum—and maybe if they felt the sides, they’d find the blocks of cane sugar.

“You can’t take this in,” the officer in the black windbreaker said. He rearranged your gifts, your homesick remedies, your food.

“But they’re dried,” you said.

“This one,” he said, picking up the moon cake carton, “has egg in it.”

Whether they throw it all in the trash or swipe it into their bags for tomorrow’s lunch, you never find out.

Aren’t you supposed to be looking for heroin? For human traffickers? For baby ALIENS kept in test tubes? You scream in your head. But the fear that your passport would be stamped with “Refused Admittance,” into the United States, a permanent stain on your records, is tangible enough for you to keep quiet.

You never fight for your souvenirs. You always walk away.

Justin Bieber doesn’t have the same problem with his luggage at the airport because he flies private. If you looked like him, flew on a private jet, had lawyers who drafted letters to the Department of U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services at every port of entry, then perhaps cranky Santa Claus might’ve believed that you, too, were talented and not just en vogue.

#undeportable by Ploy Pirapokin

You can’t be mad at the Department of Homeland Security. They are just doing their job. After 9/11, America enhanced airport security so much so that uttering the word “bomb” onsite could have you arrested. Travelers may be denied entrance if they’ve been found guilty of a criminal offense, for having ties to terrorist or criminal organizations, for working illegally, for having insufficient funds to support themselves while here. These are also reasons officers can use to deny your visa petition or even revoke your immigration status. A rejection from the Department of Homeland Security could be brought up for the next ten years in your records, and used as evidence to deny future entry of any kind.

In 2014, Justin Bieber was arrested for reckless driving, vandalism, and driving under the influence with an expired license. He resisted arrest. More than 270,000 people petitioned the White House, seeking to have him deported from the United States. They responded with a statement that read: “Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next 20 years. For those of you counting at home, that’s 12.5 billion concert tickets—or 100 billion copies of Mr. Bieber’s debut album.”

He’s America’s treasure—the world’s shiny, blonde, undeportable, baby-faced, best-selling music artist with an estimated net worth of $245 million dollars. Given a chance to stay, he produced your favorite album of 2015, Purpose.

If given a chance, you might finish your manuscript and write his favorite book.

In the same year, Carlos Garcia, director of Puente Arizona, a grassroots migrant justice organization, tried to shut down the Phoenix offices of ICE to protect deportation policies. About one in ten people deported in 2014 were deported by ICE’s operations in Arizona.

ALIENS can be deported for crimes of moral turpitude: Drug crimes. Firearms offenses. Aggravated felonies. Terrorism. Being charged for a DUI. Resisting arrest. Driving with an expired license.

In a nod to the Biebs, Garcia Photoshopped a blonde wig on his Facebook profile picture and wrote, “Look. Now I’m undeportable.”

America is built on chances. Given that chance, Carlos Garcia built a nonprofit to protect people like him. Some people aren’t given the chance at all.

Can We Say Hong Kong?

I am asking you, prompting you—forcing you even—to pause and reflect on something that we take for granted—namely, saying “Hong Kong” with such certainty and confidence