Why I had to leave and how I can get back

Nov 2011

It has just occurred to me that some of you haven’t had a chance to understand why I had to leave. Honestly, I confuse myself sometimes explaining it to people. Therefore, this email is aimed at clarifying that big question in your head -“how did Xiang fuck up so badly?”.

There are many types of visas granted by the United States State Department to foreigners. Mainly there are “non-immigrant” and “immigrant” visas, which are self-explanatory. The non-immigrant visas include student visa F-1, exchange scholar J-1, and business/tourist visitor visa B-1,2, etc. They are meant to be temporary and have a time limit , i.e. 5 year maximum for the J-1. The immigrant visas are aimed to obtain the permanent residency status, aka, the green card. One basic type is the employment based H-1, which can be used as a basis for applying for green card.  There is also O-1, a visa for people with extraordinary abilities in entertainment, sports, trade or science. Then there are investment visas, where you can throw in 250k-1mil to get yourself a 3 year investor visa that can be converted to green card down the road. So on and so forth.

I came to the States in ’96 to attend college, followed by grad school. So I had F-1 student visa continuously for almost 10 years. When I graduated, I was aiming to find an industry job but the market condition was souring at the end of ’06. Merck took an interest but quickly said no because the H-1 paper work couldn’t finish on time (there is an annual quota for the H-1 for certain nationals, like Chinese and Indians). Normally a postdoc position in any university or independent institutes will also offer an H-1 work visa. However, NIH, being a government agency, doesn’t offer work visa for postdocs. Therefore, when I arrived at NIH for my first day of work, my only option was an exchange scholar visa, J-1, which is truly a bitch to get out of. I was seriously considering backing out of the deal, but I relented because it was NCI, THE place to do cancer research and there was hope to convert out of the J-1 down the road.  Now, the J-1 is a bitch because there are many stipulations attached to it. The main hurdle, a 2-year home residency requirement, is that the holder of J-1 from certain nations (china included) has to return to home country for 2 years before being converted to other visas; because J-1 is set up mainly as a training apparatus for foreign scientists. However, I had no academic associations in China whatsoever, so returning for 2 years wouldn’t make any sense in my case.

The regulation at NIH states that if I can get a full time employee (FTE) offer either within the NIH, or from an outside institute, I may be able to convert the J-1 to H-1, by the way of a waiver for the 2-year residency requirement. The waiver consists of 2 parts, first the Chinese embassy will issue a no-contest opinion (which usually happens unless someone is sponsored through official government business), then NIH will attach a “favorable” comment before sending the waiver to state department for approval.

My boss was the director of NCI. He stepped down in the middle of 2010 as expected since that position is a presidential appointee. He expressed interest of staying on to continue the research. So I was working hard on papers and hoping for a FTE offer from him or within NCI that would solve my visa woes. In September 2010, my boss announced that he was offered a CEO position at Inova (a hospital management company) and he’s leaving immediately (literally the same day). That just threw everything into chaos. I had 2 projects with 5 papers in various stages of preparation and submission. I can’t just drop that and move on because there isn’t anything else to move on to.

There are no accurate words to describe the past year.  There were experiments to finish, papers to write, jobs searches to follow up with the timer ticking down. I managed to get 2 papers out of the door, 1 was taken over, with 2 more hopelessly on hold. My futile job search ended with an offer from the National Library of Medicine as a reviewer for clinicaltrial.gov (an online depository of trial data within the States). However, since that is a contractor position through an outside company, NIH doesn’t consider it a FTE, and therefore refused to provide a “favorable” review, which would certainly not pass the state department. I hired an attorney in an attempt to file an O-1 petition (to bypass the residency requirement) but the contractor company dragged their feet and eventually rescinded the offer. Understandably, with the unemployment rate as it is, it wouldn’t be hard for them to find someone equally qualified without all the legal hassle.

My efforts for other FTE positions within NCI turned out fruitless. Because of the federal budget crisis, NCI initiated a hiring freeze, a number of labs that were interested in taking me couldn’t move forward. No better news from outside institutes either.

I am not completely without fault. My initial desire to stay at NCI delayed my serious effort for outside jobs search until January, with the economic downturn, that was way too little time for someone who needs extended visa and legal work.

Eventually, my visa expired, so I had to leave.

Canada is the only place I can go besides China. I was granted residency here after 3 years of application process.  I initiated that route after receiving my J-1 visa at NIH. Because J-1 is renewed annually or biannually, there wasn’t enough time in between for me to squeeze in a green card petition for the US without screwing up my status. So Canada became the backup plan.  That’s why I am here now.

I hope that was clarifying not more confusing. I can’t go back to the US without a visa. I will be applying for a tourist visa soon so I can come visit. I will be able to move back if I can get a FTE position in the States. Therefore, I am still job searching. So if you guys come across anything, please don’t hesitate to let me know. “Operation backup plan” is already in effect, now let’s work on “Operation get back in”.

John, I know you are saying I deserved it because I didn’t love it enough while I was in the US. I have learned my lesson and I vowed to love it to the max from now on. I have been defending US positions in Canada, including the stoppage of keystone pipeline, for starters. also I have been advocating the Canadians to import US goods, such as Pepperidge Farm products and unadulterated fine automobiles (more on that later).

Cheers and as always, feedbacks are greatly appreciated.


French much? Non, Pour some English on me, s’il vous plait

Oct 30 2011

I have been reminded many times that Montreal is very French.  On the first night I drove in, the only English signs I saw off the highway were, well, Wal-Mart and Burger King, followed promptly by Pizza Hut. Hooray, global capitalism.

It was not until the next day when I ventured into the city proper did I get a full dose of the Frenchism. Everywhere I turned I saw letters with funny hats. My ears were full of accented pronunciation of French vowels. French always sounded funny to me, instead of the easy flow of its Spanish or Italian cousins, the French made its vowels as if they have a mortal need to fully stress their throat muscles. It sounds more like a cardio-larynx exercise to me than a way of communication. But I am prejudiced for no good reason, so forgive my digression.  As I entrée and sortie the metro, I quickly realized that I was swimming in the ocean of French. The announcements, the signs, the maps. There is some English here and there, but more like after-thoughts as if the painters realized they couldn’t fill all the room with French so they threw in some English last minute, such as “do not pull this trigger uselessly or without good reason”. I managed to get off at the right stop by furiously reading station names; no sooner than I sortied I was thrown into the streets with more French names. I was getting looks trying to pronounce “Avenue Maisonneuve” and “Rue Jacques”, but I was confident that I failed to top Herman Cain’s “Uzi-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” stunt (who can top that American jingoism), J there goes my chance to make the Colbert Report.

As I wondered semi-aimlessly down Sherbrooke st., around McGill; I came to a sudden halt when two well-dressed young ladies passed by, I wasn’t sure at first why I stopped, and please stop your perverted thoughts, you all know I am not a gawker, I only people watch occasionally. J Sorry I digress. Then it came to me, they were speaking ENGLISH! I have never thought I would ever get this excited to hear English, as if I was an expat lost in the middle of Borneo jungle for a month. As I sauntered further down the central city, more and more English conversations drifted by, mixed with French here and there. So it turns out that Montreal is divided linguistically into east and west. East side, actually the geographical north and north east, (go figure how Frenchies read their maps), will fall into the French territory; while the west side is predominantly English. But almost everyone speaks both fluently. For the next two weeks, I only ran into two persons who wouldn’t speak English to me. one claimed to be visiting from France so I forgave her. The other looked like he just got punched in the face by an Asian so I forgave him too. I heard it would get worse once you venture further into the rest of Quebec, but I would not be surprised.  After all, this province has been trying to pull a secession out of Canada for years, without any success; much like the past two centuries of French history, from Napoleon’s grand invasion of Russia to the recent Greek bailout.  defeated much? (the independence move did come pretty close in 2006 when the referendum was defeated 51%-49% by popular votes. But some Anglophones decried foul play by the independence party of the Francophones, and so on and so forth…dirty politics is everywhere)

I concluded my day without much success, as if the frenchiness was rubbing off on me. The English were capitalist wankers (will explain in the follow up episode “playing tourist in Ottawa”), the Swiss in Montreal work from 10-1, 4 days a week; and they throw in 2 more hours on Friday to complete a 14 hour work week (at least at the consulate), what a lovely schedule. And as to Quebec, it seemed that to get anything official done, it would take 2 days to 4 months depending on what it is and who you ask. Hooray, there goes my first day of orientation.

However, on my way back, when I was more familiar with the metro and had more spare time to observe other than looking for station names, I did come to an appreciation of several pieces of French engineering. For starters, my Montrealite roommate raved about how ingenious the metro system was designed. Well, at line junctions at least, I agree it is quite nifty. So when 2 metro lines cross in Montreal, unlike many other cities that place trains of the same line on the same level, the Montreal system puts the trains in-bound on the same platform, and out-bounds on the other. Because it makes a lot of sense; statistically, more people on an inbound train will continue on inbound, and vice versa.  It leads to reduced cross traffic congestion and faster transfers; I literally walked off the orange line and proceeded 30 feet on the platform to get on the green line.  Also the metro cars run on rubber tires, which I saw for the first time. Apparently many other cities from around the world followed that design. Since all the metro is underground, there are minimal weather elements that affect rubber tires’ performance, and these tires provide a noticeably smoother and quieter ride. There is still the metal rail of course, to guide the train; but the main drive-train leads to the rubber tires that run along the concrete rail outside the metal tracks.  Funny looking but pretty cool, it was pioneered in Paris by the French, naturally.

At the end of the day, French was sounding smoother and in my mind I stopped to mock it as much, although I still think it as peculiar.  I realized that there is at least one similarity between Montreal and me, Montreal is a French city that speaks some English, I am a China man that speaks some English. I hope as days progress, I will find more common ground between us and learn to appreciate and even grow fond of the city, much like I first moved to Baltimore. These days, I proudly declare that I miss the charm city often. And meanwhile, I need to find myself a French class.


La fin de French much

First Leg

Oct 28-29, 2011

so, the trip north was delayed and delayed again, while I labored to transform my house into a welcoming rental unit, more or less. it didn’t feel good to leave it behind, but it is what it is, right Jweezy?

driving through the thicket of friday traffic in NJ and NYC was quite an adventure, to say the least. my lovely GPS got me on and off 95 four times, a few times less sensible than others. btw, it costs 12$ to cross GW bridge these days, thanks Mayor Bloomberg. that’s half of a bottle of single malt at my liquor fire sale. You money grabbing capitalist whor…….free GW crossing, this should be the first clear message for occupy wall street…

Saturday was rather uneventful after bidding a few teary farewells in Amherst MA, only to have the unprecedented October snow storm of NE to wade through. A chilly and messy send-off, how appropriate and reflective. It was a perfect excuse not to drive, but most likely won’t work with INS bureaucrats. so I soldiered on. I was able to outran the storm after an hour, and enjoyed the remnants of fall foliage in the beautiful state of Vermont.

I would be lying if not admitting that going through the border check point was a tad nerve racking. Naturally, the entrance for the US side was blocked off with a cruiser, so I pulled a Uee in the middle of the highway to “enter” the US in order to hand in my departure paper. apparently saturday night is slow night for the federal Customs and Border Protection facility. when I walked into the building, all 8 of the gun toting uniformed agents quickly congregated around me like grammar school children huddled outside the primate display at the zoo. after realizing that wrestling a scrawny asian to the ground with their batons would be a bit excessive, they proceeded to ask me the reason for entering. well, in order to comply with the law, I am here to hand in my departure paper. they were genuinely surprised to hear that while passing my passport among them as if Indiana Jones found a new piece of ancient Egyptian epitaph.  Gee, I had no idea that getting thrown out of the states after living here for 15 years without ever leaving is considered highly irregular. I was ordered to fetch more paper work from my car over and over while the agents scrutinized my papers from college to grad school to NCI. finally most of them were convinced I was a real person with real papers that is really leaving the states. the monkey show was effectively dismissed. the remaining two agents punched away on their keyboards and inquired disdainfully why I never left the US as if I committed a mortal sin. ” because you fucking assholes made it so hard to get a visa to come back” I screamed in my head instinctively, while I put on a smile and said ” I thought you guys had a “love it or leave it” policy, so I chose to “love it” to the max.” (John, I thought you might like this part). well, no, that’s not really what i said. I offered the poor student excuse and 911 made travel difficult for students with tox background, etc. etc. Meanwhile, a confused white couple came in and of course the agents had to leave the strange asian standing in the corner to tend to more urgent matters of telling the canadian to show proof that she’s engaged to the american. finally, they meandered back to me after much wrangling with the canadian only to tell me that they were finished with me 10 minutes before. as a last token of kindness, at my repeated requests, one of them reluctantly made a copy of my departure paper with the date written so I could keep it as a record of my lawfulness. then they took my passport, told me to pull another Uee and handed the passport back to me out on the highway exit. as I watched the agent walk away, I almost put the car in reverse and drove back. on paper, I was gone. and technically, as long as they don’t send out the patrol cars to chase after me, I can go back, pick up spank on my way home to Maryland and all will return to normal. but I dutifully drove on another 100 yards to get myself greeted in French.


For the few times I have crossed between Canada and the states. I was always received more warmly by the Canadians. Maybe they are just better at pretending to be polite, but I digress.  I was still reeling a bit from my bitterness and my natural fear for authorities when I walked into the Canadian building. I was made more nervous when i saw one of the two agents processing me was a stunning tall blond. Now, we really don’t want to sound stupid in front of Miss Quebec here. I was dreading that my car was going to be turned inside out when the male agent took my key and walked out. yet he only wrote down the VIN number, took a glance at the neatly packed vehicle (thanks much Sue!), and asked what was in the boxes. “Books, papers and kitchen stuff…” I tried to mention the most harmless items I could think of, (btw, there is also the $9000 cash I hid inside my backpack but I bit my tongue). He thanked me and handed the key back without even taking a second look at the car. Meanwhile I realized Miss Quebec’s English was not nearly as good as her French, so I wrote down all the answers to her questions. She flashed a smile and almost apologetically told me they had to charge me 245$ to import my car before letting me through. So, that’s all? Here, take my wallet, and the $9000 cash I was reluctant to declare, maybe in return, just a little French lesson? while the other agent breezed through the paperwork, she started to teach me simple French phrases. oh geez, really, take your time,  I have 5 folders of papers the Americans just went through, don’t you want to see them and ask more questions? better, we could translate all of them to French, isn’t Saturday a slow night? Aren’t you at least a little bit curious what might be hiding in the trunk? After all, I am not leaving your country, I am COMING IN WITH A CARFUL OF STUFF, on a Halloween night. Maybe you want to be just a little more of an asshole because I am feeling quite uneasy here.

nope, it was over before i knew it and then they drop the bomb on me.  completely blind sided, I never saw it coming and there goes the first victim of my trip north. Les lovely Canadiens told me that I was supposed to file an export paper for my car with the Americans 72 hours prior to my departure. Interesting, no one ever told me that on the other side. consequently, the Americans could seize my car indefinitely if I ever drive back in Mr Zoom zoom here. huh, so the nightmare just never ends on the American side. For those of you who had ridden in it, hope you behold the fond memories.


So I went on with my now strictly Canadian Mazda to the lone dark road stretched in front of me.  I had contemplated many times how I would feel when I cross the border, whether I would breathe the freedom and let out a cry of relief or overcome with grief and crash into a giant Canadian maple tree. I always thought the latter would be more likely given my history of being a tree magnet (You oozers surely know what I am talking about).  In reality, I was so numbed and shaken that I couldn’t even communicate with my GPS, well, normally our communication consists of the calm female voice saying “recalculating” while I call her lovely names. So after being repeatedly ordered to turn at non-existent intersections, I showed her my calculation by wondering into the vast country side of southern Quebec. The overwhelming smell of cow dung and seasoned hay reminded me acutely of western Mass that I left behind just hours ago.  Surprisingly, not only they speak French here, all the road signs are in French as well. huh, who would’ve thought of that? I managed to utilize my remaining brain cells to guess “nord” as north, which really saved my butt; because going “sud” would definitely book me another date with those gun toting agents again. And they might be even less friendly to see me return so quickly. And I had the sense to realize that the numbers on speed signs were in Kms not miles, so I didn’t fly down some pitch black Quebec-country dirt road at 80 mph. (some of you had done it otherwise:). just when I thought I had circled every single farm twice in southern Quebec, I found a sign with many French words, but one of them was “Montreal” and that’s all i needed. An hour later, I was crossing the St. Lawrence river into the city of Montreal. btw, Montreal is an island, for those of you who care to know.


As the city lights shined on me and traffic thickened, I closed my eyes for a second and told myself, this is either the beginning of a very bad ending or an end to a shitty beginning. But nonetheless, here I come, canadia.


Le fin de first leg