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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

December 23, 2013

Our Christmas as Immigrants

It's 9:40AM on Christmas Eve here in Hamilton. We are seated in the surprisingly spacious waiting room of the Hillcrest Medical Centre. It’s a relatively small operation boasting some eleven doctors and two grumpy receptionists. The room is far from full so Gwyn is feeding Clark a banana.

Despite the inauspicious locale, all is well for our small brood. But with homeward and Christmas thoughts aplenty, I can’t help but recall the fact that the Savior of the world was born as an undocumented alien far from home. Given the special relationship between Jesus and immigrants, it occurs to me that we are doing something today that only a family of immigrants would do.

We are here today waiting to collect my medical records so that we can process our visa application before the Immigration Office closes at Noon for the New Year.

And we haven't much time.

9:42AM

Naturally, the receptionist seemed a bit annoyed when I indicated that we would rather wait for our records than "pop in" later to pick them up. The Kiwi way of doing things, and the social good form, is to let things go for another day. "It'll get done" is the mantra. No rush. But for us niceties aren't an option. Time is of the essence. A late offer letter from my University, coupled with the need to have my passport renewed, have all conspired against us in retrieving the medical records we initiated for processing with this clinic nearly three months ago.

The receptionist, managing a busy office, wasn't terribly interested in our story. Her glare was sufficient to communicate her thoughts on our situation. Which is a bit odd in retrospect since we were instructed by her colleague to follow the present course of action (viz., to drop off our records yesterday and collect them today). Good to see communication struggles occur in every relationship - even among colleagues.

But, as I mentioned, our situation today reminds me somewhat of Christ's birth because the same predicaments that led Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem have led me and Gwyn and Clark to the clinic - inane policies of government they were obliged to follow - no matter how very pregnant Mary was.

In the end, they were as much victims of circumstances as we are today. I suspect they were met with similarly unsympathetic stares when making their pleas for lodging.

"Sorry, not much else I can do," the receptionist says. And so we wait.

10:00AM

I've seen my doctor just now. As luck would have it, inexplicably, he never bothered to complete the forms of my medical exam. Different system here I guess. "Thought you didn't need it completed." And then the dreaded words, "Can't possibly get it done before Noon."

To be fair, his workload is swamped today, but after a bit of cajoling, I manage to secure a commitment to do what he can in light of our timeframe. “No Doctor, we don’t mind the wait." The Doc means well, but it's clear he'd rather not process many more of these immigration exams, doubtless preferring his usual lot of patients.

"Can't promise anything. But I'll try to get it done before lunch." He adds.

It's strange to be in such a position of utter dependence upon the competence (and at this point sheer will) of others. I'm quite nearly inclined to say that we are dependent upon the kindness of others, but I'm not sure that competence qualifies as a kindness for medical professionals. Back home, we might call this simply a duty of care.

The relation of this to Christmas is that Mary and Joseph were in a similar fix - not that we are in any other way comparable to the parents of the Christ. Even so, I can understand, now, the pressure they must have felt. The urgent need to find someone, anyone, willing to accommodate them. And the crushing feeling of being turned away.

10:30AM

Clark has grown fussy so Gwyn is taking him for a walk. The receptionist is taking morning tea back to the doctors. Patients and records be damned. In New Zealand, nothing thwarts morning tea.We have only an hour and a half now to make the trek downtown to the Immigration Office. Unlike "The Hunger Games," the odds do not seem to be in our favor.

I suppose things could be worse. We could be awaiting news of a serious illness or saying good-bye to a loved one. Fortunately, we’re all healthy if not a bit sleep deprived. Still, it's time to begin preparing for a less than ideal outcome.

I like to think of how Mary reached a point of meditation and zen about her own situation which was certainly more dire than ours.

Mary came from limited means. Surely rearing a son would be a challenge under any circumstance for her. This was doubtless made even more complicated given her engagement to Joseph, what with carrying a child that was not his and all. I suppose this might be a bit chauvinistic, but no matter how tremendous the blessing, a man still likes to know that it's his child in his wife's belly.

This makes her response to the Angel's news of her pregnancy all the more striking. Then again, as we are learning today, what can you do when events are out of your control but ponder them? (Luke 2.19).

10:45AM

Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Only moments ago the Doctor came out, tight-lipped, wordlessly handing me a large envelope with the completed paperwork for my visa application. I no more had time to thank him than he turned away, back to the grind. His bedside manner leaves something to be desired. But it's hard to quibble with a guy who delivers.

I don't know that there's a Christmas correlation for this outcome. Seems a bit different than having to birth a child in a manger. Given the two, we’re faring much better today. For my part, I'm just relieved things seem to have turned out alright. Perhaps that's how Mary and Joseph felt, just thankful for a bit of shelter and some privacy.

10:55AM

I called a cab for Gwyn to drive her to the Immigration Office. By God, this just might work. As if on cue, the cab arrived in a matter of minutes. I’m inordinately thankful as I watch her pull away from the curb. Clark's tiny hand does a small wave. We've been teaching him that, which makes me proud. Normally we'd all take the bus. But as the muse says, "ain't nobody got time for that."

11:10AM

Gwyn called just now. Our paperwork was delivered with 50 minutes to spare.

It's a small one. But I'll count it a Christmas miracle all the same.

11:45AM

To celebrate our good fortune, we had a Christmas Eve lunch at the lone Mexican taqueria in Hamilton, New Zealand. It's conveniently located in the food court at the Centre Place Mall.

I had a burrito and a Diet Coke. The salsa was mild. The meat was shredded, and rather good.

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December 18, 2013

Language, Identity and Culture

We had a farewell morning tea for a colleague earlier today. My friend is a lovely woman of British extract who will be moving away to start life anew with her 'partner'. The use of the term partner as a synonym for all manner of couplings is something I've found strange here in New Zealand. I suspect that if I ever called Gwyn my partner rather than my wife, I might see more than a few raised eyebrows back home in the good old U.S. of A.

Language

While stubbornly drinking my morning coffee (all good Patriots know that tea is for redcoats and commies), I had a chat with an acquaintance who forcefully insisted that New Zealand's adoption of the Māori language (te reo Māori) as one of the country's official languages was one of the most 'liberal' and forward-thinking moves NZ had made in recent years.

Before I had time to reply, she then took aim at the United States, arguing that America's refusal to adopt Spanish and the 566 languages of America's Indian tribes was an especially sordid transgression. By the same token, she ignored the fact that America doesn't actually have an official language. Perhaps this was an inconvenient truth as Al Gore might say. Nevertheless, in her view, such a lack of linguistic accommodation reduced the American values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to nothing more than empty falsehoods.(They [Americans] don’t support those [values]. Not really.)

Identity

As one might imagine, I've had several conversations about America with my Kiwi friends. The lone commonality between them is that everyone seems to have an opinion of America. (Do you really own a gun? What’s Walmart like?). Despite the many chats I’ve had, I can’t recall having ever been told, prior to today, that the bedrock values of my Country are a sham. Suffice it to say, this particular conversation did not last long and I excused myself for the comforts of a quiet office.

When my blood pressure reached a plateau, I paused to consider her comments. She was correct in that in so many places, the notion of language is inextricably tied to notions of culture - almost to the point that a language can define one's national identity. This is true, perhaps, in most places - China, France, the UK, Germany and even Mexico all come to mind. Still, I don't think my colleague quite appreciates how things work in America.

Unlike New Zealand which has a total population that is roughly the size of Boston, the United States is a massive, free-wheeling, culturally diverse Nation. In previous posts, I’ve likened the US to a big dysfunctional family that stays together for tax purposes. Like it or not, the left is stuck with the right because, let's face it, the costs associated with revolution and secession would really cramp our style. We’ve already tried a separation, and as the fates would have it, we’re better off together than apart. True love lasts, as the kids say.

As this matter of population diversity relates to identity, perhaps nowhere in the world is identity so loosely linked to language than in the United States. English is spoken by the vast majority of Americans, so this is the de facto language in which we do business. It’s not prescribed by law (although attempts have been made). It’s simply the way things are done. In America, language, then, is not so much a matter of national identity as it is a matter of national convenience in a wildly diverse country.  

Culture

Even so, perhaps my acquaintance’s remarks are more on point as they relate to culture. Perhaps American values are moot points because we do not accommodate a plethora of languages and the cultures they purportedly represent. It’s true that culture is a thorny concept in America. Historically, we don’t do very well with cultures that are not our own. The trail of tears and subsequent expropriation of American Indian lands come to mind. Slavery and Japanese interment camps also ring a bell.

Still, I’d like to think that these are exceptions to the rule of American exceptionalism. Our values aren’t diminished because we fail to meet the standards. Even under our founding documents, the values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are objectively self-evident truths. As such, our standards should rather inform our future actions as opposed to being defined by them.

And I think, in general, this is how it works. This is why Edward Snowden’s revelation of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programme prompted such a strong reaction. Same for Obamacare. Same for drones. Same for Benghazi. Same for the IRS harassment of conservative groups. These issues became big deals because they so starkly cut against the core of what America stands for as a Nation. 

As a country, then, America is not a Nation that finds its identity through the mass conformity to or accommodation of a particular language. America finds its identity through the common acceptance of a shared set of values, no matter how imperfect our policies may be.

Sum

And with that thought, my temper cooled. My pulse no longer raced. In fact, I quite nearly felt a twinge of sympathy for my acquaintance. For unless one is an American and rather accustomed to breathing the sweet air of freedom, I suspect that it is very difficult to apprehend how this all works in practice. Easier to find inconsistencies and write off the whole system of universal human rights than to accept the nuance reflected in the universality of the human condition. 

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December 4, 2013

A Prayer on a Rainy Day


A prayer/poem I wrote while enjoying the rains here in the Waikato. 


Dear God -

Today, I'm thankful for rain. For cool summer showers and lawns that resemble seas of green.

For lunches shared with ducks and for countries where a beer for lunch isn't terribly scandalous.

My heart is also thankful for technology and for the diversity of this life that it allows me to connect with. Even more than that, I am thankful for the complexity of people - else life would be rather boring.

I am thankful for moral autonomy and human agency. I am glad for shades of gray and for the purity of my young son - who, for now, lives only in the white.

I am thankful to be alive at this moment in time despite how similar life is to the rain I am enjoying - falling like a droplet from the heavens, only to disappear into this terrestrial plane.

Amen.
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Organic, free-range thought courtesy of your average, coffee-addicted, American Indian, academic. Program Manager @IGPatUA.


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