An American Education

No fiction could be more false, or more dangerous

Rodrigo Valenzuela, Sense of Place No. 14. 2016, toner, acrylic, chalk on canvas. 50 × 78". Courtesy of the artist and Klowden Mann, Culver City.

The customs officer beckoned me forward with a distracted wave of her gloved hand. I stepped into the inspection booth and greeted her with the smile of a traveling salesman.

“Afternoon, ma’am,” I said. “Glad to visit again.”

The key was to strike the right tone, neither reticent nor forward. I rarely encountered problems at the airport, but over the previous months the Trump Administration had formed a task force to identify naturalized citizens eligible for deportation, announced that it would no longer allow foreigners who enrolled in Medicaid to obtain green cards, and repeatedly refused to issue passports to citizens of perceived Latino descent. It had also begun to imprison children in concentration camps, though this last news item was so insane that it was hard not to pretend the concentration camps were not concentration camps and the children were not children.

The incredible, in other words, had invaded the realm of the possible, such that the contours of the future had become nebulous. None of the foreigners I knew in America knew what to think or feel, much less what to say or how to say it. I had a good lawyer and nothing to hide, but was I sure that I had met the criteria for filing my taxes as a nonresident alien?

Had I checked that the lady from the Office for International Students and Scholars initialed the document that authorized me to teach two different courses instead of two sections of the same course?

And what about that time in New York when I’d let a friend borrow my phone to text his dealer? That had been years ago, true, but who was to say that the hardworking prosecutors of the proud borough of Brooklyn might not yet conclude that the only surefire way to combat the scurrilous accusations that they focused their not-inconsiderable resources on poor people of color would be to make an example of the handful of bougie twentysomethings who had been foolish enough to do business with a moonlighting bike messenger who called himself “the Cheesemonger”?

That my fears were ridiculous did not make them any less terrifying. My foreigner’s anxiety, as I had come to call it, was a complex and mortifying version of the irrational suspicion that assaulted me once or twice every month as I crossed the main quad of the University of Iowa on my way to teach: I would become convinced that I had left the Bialetti on the stove, and that the stove was on, and that it was only a matter of time before the pressure in the coffee pot’s inner chamber reached the point of no return, transforming the charming espresso maker into an improvised explosive device. I would then run back to the apartment, ready to find the place covered in shrapnel and coffee grounds, only to discover the pot in the sink.


The officer held out her hand and I placed my passport between her fingers, shivering at the surgical touch of her latex gloves. I hoped that she’d notice how I’d made things easier for her by bookmarking the page that held my visa with my Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, but she began entering my details into her computer without so much as looking at me. Minutes passed. I grew nervous. She still hadn’t said anything. Was something wrong? No, I was overinterpreting. Her gestures, unlike mine, were not the product of careful consideration. She seemed angry, sure, but the logical conclusion wasn’t that she’d decided to punish me for some inadvertent violation. It was far more likely that she had a headache or credit card bills or a pending divorce.

“Is everything all right?” I finally caved.

The officer looked up from her computer and into my eyes and I realized that my question contained its answer. “I’m confused,” she said. “You go to school in Iowa, right?”

“That’s correct,” I replied.

“So why did you fly into San Francisco?”

“To visit my girlfriend’s parents.”

“And where do they live?”

“In Oakland.”

“But you’re flying to Burbank tonight?”

“Yes, we — ”

“But you said you were staying in Oakland.”

“Yes, but we — ”

“Who’s we?”

“My girlfriend and I.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s an American citizen, so — ”

“So you are visiting her family? Have you met them before? What do her parents do in Oakland?”

“They’re artists.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, she’s a printmaker and he’s a — ”

“And why are you going to Burbank?”

“For a wedding.”

“And how long are you staying in Oakland?”

“Ten days, I think?”

“You think?”

“Well, I — ”

“And when do you plan to get back to Iowa?”

“In a month or so, haven’t quite deci — ”

“You said you were staying in Oakland for ten days.”

“We’re going to Providence for a few weeks after that.”

“What are you doing in Rhode Island?”

“Spending time with my girlfriend.”

“Doesn’t she live in Oakland?

“No, that’s her parents. She — ”

“How long have you known her?”

“About a year.”

“Don’t you know your anniversary?”

“Well, it’s complicated, we — ”

“Where did you meet?”

“We crossed paths in college but didn’t really know each other until grad school.”

“At Iowa?”

“Yes.”

“But she lives in Rhode Island?”

“She’s going to school there. We met when she was deci — ”

“And now you are going to Oakland to meet her parents?”

“Yes.”

“But you have a ticket to Burbank.”

“Yes, but — ”

“When was the last time you entered the US on your current visa?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You are not sure?”

“January. Probably January.”

The officer flipped through my passport, then picked up the phone on her desk. “Hi there,” she said into the receiver. “I’ve got an F-1 with an I-20 from the University of Iowa. Says school starts in August but wants to spend time in Rhode Island with a long-distance girlfriend. Has a boarding pass for a flight to Burbank but gave an Emeryville address. Says he was last admitted in January but has no current-year stamps. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Thanks.”

She looked at me and let out a sigh, and I felt the odd calm that arrives when the worst-case scenario comes to pass.

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