I’m an illegitimate alien who’s never been able to vote. I’ve lived in three countries but never in the one that issues my passport. Every time I fly into the U.S., I get held at immigration. After I show my passport and my green card, the officer takes a look at my file and the smile disappears from their face as they tell me to stand to the side and wait for an officer who’ll eventually escort me to a windowless holding cell where I wait indefinitely for my name to be called.
A couple of years ago, after missing a flight then getting delayed, I was finally back at LAX and, again, held for a secondary check at immigration. After getting barked at for using my phone, because, in their defense, they do make it known that no one is allowed to communicate with anybody on the outside, I was finally called forward and harangued with questions about my ex-husband, our relationship, our families. They tried to catch me in a lie but I can’t get caught when I have nothing to hide. I was brought here at 19, became an illegal immigrant and I’m not anymore. But that didn’t stop the officer from being rude as hell to me and everyone who had the misfortune of being called up by her. She berated this one guy in Spanish, telling him that his green card wouldn’t stop him from getting deported back to Mexico. She called this 20-something European, who was worried about missing his connection, “stupid” for not booking flights with enough buffer time. Then she got to me. She had my file open on the screen in front of her and was asking me questions off of it like when is my ex’s mom’s birthday (who remembers this?), when was our anniversary, all to verify… Well, I don’t know what she was trying to verify but there I was being prodded about a time in my life I’d been trying to forget. With a screen showing her that I filed for my green card as an abused divorcee, she asked me “why would you stay with him?” Oh, hell nah! My trying-to-be-nice smile dropped immediately when the shock befell my face. “Excuse me? What did you say to me?” I said. She was shook, mumbling something about doing her job. Uh, no; I was so pissed! I wanted to ask her to line up everyone she’d ever been in a relationship with and tell me if they were all perfect but instead, like a good little white woman, I wrote an angry letter of complaint to the department asking for some common decency and professionalism from a person whose career is built on human interaction. I obviously never heard back from them but the next time I was held at secondary, I passed that same officer and her eyes told me she knew who I was. They also said she was sorry.
Living here illegally taught me quite a few things. It taught me white privilege because, even walking by ICE agents, no one ever suspected me. It taught me to keep my head down and my lips tight because the moment I slip up, it’s not just my ass on the line: I have people back home depending on me and my paper trail of existence leads to others. It also taught me to trust my gut; without knowing the laws, if something feels wrong I won’t do it because the consequences might bring everything crumbling down. Most of all it taught me this truth: life is simple and inconsequential when you know for a fact that your voice counts for nothing and your thoughts amount to nothing more than purely objective opinions. And I was cool with that. For all of my life I was an outsider looking around. In Asia, I’m a white girl, in America, I’m Asian—ish. Not fully one thing, never really quite another. I guess this is why I feel for L.A. so damn much. It’s an amalgamation of practically every culture in the world with enough space for each to have an enclave or at the very least an authentic-mom’s-cooking restaurant. It’s a place so confusing we can’t even tell where it ends and where it begins: Is it the city of Los Angeles? The county? Is it wherever you go after flying into LAX? It’s a place with a perennial identity crisis.
L.A. is a weird city with a seemingly dangerous enigmatic vibe. A few blocks down the hill from the bank tower that dominates its skyline and the gleaming multi-billion dollar industry of the jewelry district is Skid Row, home to the largest encampment of homeless people in America, almost 6,000 of whom are young, between the ages of 18 to 24, many of them likely pushed to its streets when the system couldn’t hold them anymore. Skid Row started off as “Hobo Corner” near the end of the 1800s, an area where vagabonds, many of them veterans of the Civil War, found themselves once they got to the end of the transcontinental railroad. But this isn’t the story of L.A. we share with the world. No, this is only for the eyes of suburban commuters and tourists who’ve taken a wrong turn. We transmit images of our golden coasts and the star strewn Walk of Fame but, for all the bad and the good, there’s something about L.A. that wants to stay hidden. It’s like it wants its full worth to be discovered only by those who wish to seek it.
Two weeks ago, I was on my way to my coffee shop to hunker down and type away but sitting in my car listening to KCRW, I heard Garth Trinidad say that Kamasi Washington was performing a free concert in South/South Central for the release of his album “Heaven and Earth“. Now, I’m an indecisive person by nature but mix a free concert with my cheapness and love of jazz then it’s balls to the walls. My ass was on the 110 in a heartbeat. But when I exited, I found that mystery again. Google Maps could only get me so far because L.A. doesn’t show borders between communities and, in all honesty, the best gems of L.A. have to be discovered. So I followed the music and a hunch to the side of The World Stage, an educational and performance art space in Leimert Park Village, a part of L.A. I’ve never heard of let alone been to. What I found was a reminder that jazz is not dead. In a vibrant community space intended for the preservation and advancement of African American music, literature, and the arts, Kamasi Washington’s style brought together an eclectic mix of people for a musical event definitive of L.A.: It was the sexiness only a saxophone can bring, the gritty edge of a drums battle, vivid splashes of colours from his dashiki, and an emotional power brought by Patrice Quinn’s voice and soulful movements as she led the crowd to change their hands to Fists of Fury. The set got to the heart of jazz with its spirit of expressing culture and improvisation, the fact that, as a listener, you just don’t know where the music is going to take itself and that’s what makes the genre so exciting.
Jazz itself had its own great migration. Born in the South, it made its way to Chicago, crossing borders into Montreal, and from the 1920s to 1950s, it was alive and well on Central Avenue, the home of the West Coast jazz scene. The blues began as croons of pain and injustice accompanying spiritual work in a social environment. Swing in jazz came as a livening jolt during the Great Depression becoming the basic rhythmn of jazz, its soul rooted in being harmonious with other people and loving that synchrony. But I feel like what really brought the pizazz out of jazz was improvisation & bebop. Bebop became known as jazz for intellectuals; instead of being for dancing, bebop invited its audience to sit down and take it all in. Dizzy Gillespie used the genre to experiment with collaboration, introducing Latin American rhythmns to modern jazz. Improvisation, on the other hand, gave us jazz’s sexy badness — music as you like it. It signaled a creative freedom to go off script, telling the artist to do you, boo! It moulded the concept of jazz as the music of freedom: with so many ideas flying around, through instruments and performers, improvization allowed for everyone on stage to have a conversation through music.
In a way, jazz is the American experience: It was born of a struggle to be heard, to be felt on a human level. An ecclectic mishmash of international grooves, its an ensemble; an individual sound may get lost in the mix but, inescapably, it’ll harmonize with the music it helps create.