Re-posted from The Huff Post, June 21, 2014
I brought my wife-to-be here to LA from Indonesia on August 3, 2001. We had met on the lovely island of Bali a little over a year before in the early summer of 2000. We e-mailed each other for several months, she in “broken English”, and I went back to visit her for almost a month around Christmas time and New Years. We traveled across the island of Java together, taking night buses through the drenched green rain forests for 10 hours at a haul, touring the great Buddhist temples in Borobudur, riding small horses up into the active volcanic crater at Gunung Bromo, watching the traditional Ramayana dance-stories and shadow puppets in Yogakarta, and getting to know each other just a little bit over the bumpy weeks. It wasn’t easy, with the tri-chasms of language, culture and age, looming large between us.
“It’s just too much pressure,” I wrote the Consul General, “getting married to a woman I hardly know within six months.
I think my persistence and sincerity just wore the poor man down, and after about 10 e-mail exchanges, he finally granted my wife-to-be the visa. I immediately bought her a round trip plane ticket from Denpasar, Bali to Los Angeles, something the INS (now the Department of Homeland Security) also required.
I remember waiting for her at the Tom Bradley international arrivals terminal. I held a huge, hand-lettered sign in my arms with her name on it, “Wati” (meaning “girl” in Bahasa Indonesian). I was nervous as hell, having never been married, but now, for some desperate or unknown reason, I had invited a woman to live with me for the first time in almost 20 years. “Wati” was born in the small village of Sibolga on Indonesia’s largest island, Sumatra, and she grew up in its “biggest’ city, Medan, with a population of almost half a million. She was from a poor, third world family, where her single mother worked impossibly hard to raise six children. I could only imagine how she felt, flying for the first time on an 23 hour flight from Bali, the tiny island jewel in the South Pacific to big bad, wonderful Los Angeles. She was incredibly brave and ambitious, giving up everything she knew of comfort, language and familiarity — to take a risk on this old “panjang boulay”, i.e. long-nosed gringo. That is… your Trulesly!
But I wonder now, way back in 2000, what the hell was I thinking? This young, beautiful girl was 30 years my junior and she spoke almost no English. Here’s an example of her well-crafted e-mail to me: “Helo, Eric Trules. Enjoy meet with you. When you come agan to Bali? Well, bye bye. Luv, Wati.” This, with the help an English-Indonesian dictionary and many hours in the local internet shop. To say that her vocabulary, grammar and writing skills were “extremely limited”, would be a generous understatement. Not to mention that she had no idea who Richard Nixon, Bob Dylan, or the Beatles were. In fact, before she literally bumped into me on the street in Kuta Beach, Bali, she had never even dreamed of coming to America. And although English was certainly a useful tool to Indonesian locals working in Bali, in Wati’s case, it was not essential. Yet now… just three weeks before 9/11… by some unforeseen and synchronistic twist of fate…here she suddenly was in… Lala land.
Well, as I soon discovered, with just the barest amount of inquiry, the Los Angeles Unified School District paid for it. It paid the for teachers from six to midnight. It paid for the rental of the huge, five floor building right next to downtown. For the administration and advertisement of the classes. It paid for student services, college counseling, citizenship preparation, and professional career training. All without cost to the student, except six dollars for a student picture ID. Amazing, no? Certainly, yes. The theory being one of inclusion: teach the non-English speakers coming to this country, legally or illegally, how to speak the language and become productive members of the City and of the society. Teach them to become citizens. You certainly don’t see something like this being done for the African and Muslim immigrants of Europe, now do you?
Who did Evans teach? Besides my wife and her new friends of parallel circumstances from all over the world?
This astonishing school taught the poor, the rich, the undocumented, the illegal — taught them all — regardless of ethnicity, skill, economic status, or caste. All were welcome at Evans. All you needed was six bucks and a desire to learn English as a second language. Imagine this kind of inclusive governmental policy employed in other places around the globe… where the politics of exclusion, of racial strife and of division are currently and rampantly dividing the world into “clashes between civilizations”. Imagine that right here, in good ol’ LA, city of vast chasms between the rich and poor, between haves and have nots, between Beverly Hillians and East Los Angelenos, between the 99 and the 1 percenters — imagine right here — was Evans Community Adult School, leveling the playing field and offering English and inclusion to anyone who wanted to step up and play.
A month and eight days after “Wati” came to LA, the Twin Towers collapsed in shock and awe in New York, my home town. We got a call at 6 in the morning, and still in bed, we turned on the tv. We saw the day unravel in front of our eyes. But… what I saw and what “Wati” saw were two different things. Me? I saw what most of you reading this piece saw. Death, destruction, terror, and the world being altered within a single hour in a way that has forever changed all of our lives ever since. “Wati”? What she saw, I think, was more like the movie, “Towering Inferno”, on the tv news…. shown over and over again, in an endless loop of shock and confusion that she couldn’t quite understand. New York was a place she didn’t know. Seeing buildings collapse, smoke, fire, and death, was something she saw in volcanic eruptions, tsunamis… all on tv. And what she saw on tv really had… no connection to her, personally, at all.
For me to have married a young girl, an immigrant from a small town in the third world, was something I could have never imagined during my first 53 years on the planet. Sure, I was an offbeat, one of a kind artist-bohemian. And sure, I had become a modern dancer and a professional clown instead of becoming my parents’ much wished for “my son, the doctuh”… in my lifelong pursuit of taking “the road less traveled”. I had run for Mayor of New York City as a clown (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/trules/i-used-to-be-a-clown_b_5495113.html) and survived cancer at age 42. But this… this was really a blind leap of faith. I mean I had landed on my hands and knees many times before (part of the job description), but this… this was personal. And not particularly rational. And really risky. And potentially… permanent. Really, Trules! What the hell were you thinking?
The one thing it did make easier for us was… Surya’s becoming a U.S. citizen. It wasn’t that hard now that we were married. It just took tiiiiime. Lots and lots of tiiiiime. I did all the legal work. It too, wasn’t that hard. After consulting with several “immigration lawyers”, some legit, some shadier than others, all expensive, I decided to do it myself. All I had to do was download the Department of Homeland Security (USCIS) forms… many, many forms… and fill them out. Then wait.
Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative.
Form I-485, Application for Adjustment of Status.
Form I-864, Affidavit of Support.
Form I-693, Medical Examination of Aliens seeking Adjustment of Status.
Form I-131, Application for Travel Document.
Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization.
And Form G-325A, Biographic Information.
All these in the mighty “Green Card Application Package”.
Don’t you just love the usage of the word “Alien” as many times as bureaucratically possible?
But… one year and two months later and we had it. The elusive and all-powerful green card. Surya could legally start working in America. And she could legally re-enter the country after traveling abroad, something many of friends could no longer do, after their tourist and student visas had expired.
Next… we had to wait two years before we could file the next form, I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence. We filed and waited.
We stood on many long lines at 5:30 in the morning at LA’s downtown Federal Building on Spring Street and Temple, To get fingerprints. To get Surya’s status adjusted. To get her medically examined by a Homeland Security-approved doctor. To get her travel document. To get the famous interview where they ask you:
“Which side of the bed do you sleep on?” “What kind of toothpaste does your spouse use?”
We did it all of it… together.
In May 2007, four years into the process, we filed form N-400, Application for Naturalization. Still just $400 at the time. A bargain. And finally, on May 22, 2008, almost seven years from the date she first arrived in America, over five years after we first filed for a green card, “Suryawati Manalu-Trules” became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America.
Other than having to stand for the signature George Dubya Bush on my office wall, I am proud of my wife’s journey to America. She really wanted to change the limited life of opportunity that she had in Indonesia, and she has. She has worked as a bartender at a trendy jazz club in Chinatown. She has served Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro at the Oscars, catered Jay Z’s and Rick Caruso’s private parties in Beverly Hills, and worked the annual Emmys, Grammies, AFI Lifetime Achievement and SAG Awards for years. She has probably seen more celebrities than almost anyone in town (probably more than the celebrities themselves), but she isn’t impressed at all. She calls Martin Scorsese “Bushes” because of his thick eyebrows, and because she doesn’t know a single movie he’s made. She tells her envious husband (that’s me!) that half these people are already dozing through their meal by the salad course, until they suddenly feel the heat and light of the camera on them, when, in a start, they bolt to attention and flash the paparazzi their best pearly white smiles. Kinda funny and ironic, don’tcha know?
She works really hard. She’s gone from Evans Community Adult School to LACC (Los Angeles City College) to Kaplan College, a professional school, to learn X-ray technology.
Of course, I have trouble with America’s current immigration policy. It is most certainly broken. We have 11 million illegal people here living in the shadows of our society, afraid to identify themselves for fear of deportation. Of themselves… of their children. I have a young immigration lawyer friend who works for the Department of Homeland Security. He stayed with us in Echo Park when he was interning, right out of law school, at the Department of Justice in downtown LA. A nice guy. He’s soft spoken and modest to a fault; the wife and I both like him. He now works somewhere in the “heartland” of America, deporting illegal aliens back to their countries of origin. He says that naturally, the deportations are mostly to Spanish-speaking countries south of our border. But some to the Mideast, others virtually to… anywhere. But Andy says he “hates his job”. That what he does is morally ambiguous, if not entirely reprehensible, and that US immigration policy keeps flip flopping, from aggressive to passive, and then back again the other way. He says he feels just as trapped as some of the illegal immigrants in their holding pens, as he see the same ones over and over again, and he feels more and more impotent within the inconsistent system.
But back to the wife. She’s still a happy U.S. citizen. So happy that she even gave up her Indonesian citizenship. Whereas the U.S. allows dual citizenship, Indonesia does not.
“I don’t care. I don’t want to ever live there again. It’s too hot. It’s polluted. The only reason I go there is to see my family.”
And it’s true. We tried to bring both her nursing sister to LA to become a nurse here, and her mother, just for a month long visit, but the US Consulate in Jakarta denied both of them visas. It’s a post 9/11 world and the US doesn’t hand out visas as easily as it used to. Even to the sister and mother of a U.S. citizen. So… she goes there… and I go to Bali. Not a bad trade off, but I’m not sure about the visa decisions. To say the least, it’s been very frustrating.
But Surya loves America not only because it’s the first world and she can shop until she drops. But also because of how she can dress here. How she can wear sleeveless, sexy dresses and makeup… without the onerous eyes of fellow Indonesians judging her in harsh, small town Islamic ways. She likes how you can be anything, do anything… in Los Angeles… and not be judged. She likes more than anything… the “freedom” she has in America.
This week, we’ll celebrate my wife’s birthday. June 19. She’ll be…. well, that’s another thing she’s learned in America: women don’t comfortably reveal their age. But hell, she’s been here almost 13 years, come this August 3rd. We’ll go out to a nice restaurant, probably somewhere in downtown LA, hopefully to one of Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold’s more affordable “Top 101”. We’ll invite some of her international friends: the mad Russian masseur from Siberia, the Brazilian Word Cup-obsessed samba queen from Rio, the put-herself-through school PR social media whiz from Senegal. And we’ll all sit around the same table. In America. In fact, I might be the only one who will have been born here.
But we’ll all eat some calamari or some crab cakes together, some fondue or some pad Thai. And we’ll all talk and laugh together. And we’ll all drink together. And to me, it will be like a miracle. Maybe not to them, because they probably won’t even be aware of it for a moment. But less than 13 years ago, some even less, none of them were in here in America. None of them lived here, worked here, were “citizens” of Los Angeles, legal or not. And now they are. Like wow, huh?
And then my wife will pick up the bill — because that’s what you’re supposed to do on your birthday — treat all your friends — not like I learned in my tribe where friends were supposed to treat the birthday boy… or girl. No, Surya will pick up the bill without thinking twice about it, and she will pay with the money she earned by working two double shifts last week. And her friends will thank her, and they will all do the same on their birthdays… in America.
I think of my lovely Indonesian wife and I think how beautifully she fits into the fabric of this country we call America. Sure, I know I romanticize her life. Because I also know my wife still often feels overwhelmed here, her future still being unknown, her still worrying about “not having a career”. What will she do when I make my inevitable exit, most probably far earlier than her own?
Then I remember back to when we visited New York for the first time over Christmas of 2002. We stayed with a former student of mine, now a big creative VP with Blue Man Group, in Astoria, Queens… which in 2002, was still the land of first generation immigrants. Greeks, Puerto Ricans, East Europeans, Latinos, it was a patchwork quilt of languages, foods, and cultures. I loved it. My wife loved it. I reminded me again of my grandparents, the grocers and house painters, working their way up the blue collar immigrant ladder, just like Surya and her immigrant friends in LA 2014.
And I know that as I putter around and swim and laze my way through New England, that I will be sharing it all with Surya, my lovely wife from Sumatra and Bali, Indonesia. And I already know that we will be sending a picture-perfect electronic Facebook and Instagram photo – back to her family in Medan and to our immigrant friends back in LA.
In a couple of weeks, it will be July Fourth, America’s Independence Day. We will walk over to Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine to see the glorious fireworks display. It will be beautiful. And deep in my curmudgeonly, reluctant heart, I will think… and feel:
“Ah…… America, you are still something to love and believe in….”
And his “e-travels with e. trules” blog at: etravelswithetrules.com/blog
Follow Eric Trules on Twitter: www.twitter.com/etrules