Nothing useful

3 months into my PhD, I got the chance to attend my first conference as a doctoral student, TransCultural Exchange in Boston. Though my paper had been accepted almost a year prior, I was chuffed to have received support from the RCS to help with my travel expenses. Getting funding and presenting a paper at an international conference made me feel like this whole PhD thing was actually not a bad idea. I had sorted out my USA visa before moving back to Scotland, I had my accommodation sorted (staying with a good friend, US citizen, and a letter from her to prove it), I had a letter from the conference organisers to show at immigration. More importantly, I had a UK visa to allow me to come back. As always, I took care to book my connecting flights via somewhere in continental Europe, avoiding Heathrow like the Plague. The fear was there, though. This was months before Donald Trump got elected, but it’s not like the USA ever had a reputation for being nice to Latin Americans arriving at their shores. Additionally, this Latin American in particular had been refused visas to the UK and been branded for at least the next decade. The trauma has spread across my group of friends in Edinburgh, too – I can feel them holding their breath every time I leave the country. But a successful academic career hangs on going to conferences and disseminating research, so I had to brave it.

I flew from Edinburgh to Paris, and from there to Boston. It was February and I’d been checking the weather reports telling me to expect temperatures as low as -20°C! I packed my thickest winter clothes and set off.

It’s a good thing that I don’t actually remember much about going through immigration in Boston. What I do remember is the officer asking me what me PhD was on, and my reply being an apologetic and giggly “nothing useful”. Unmoved by the joke, he stamped my passport and let me through the gates. I collected my suitcase and made my way to meet my friend. It was snowing.

In hindsight, I get angry at myself for that reply. It just gets drilled into us that the arts aren’t useful, and although almost all of my peers will disagree with that, I often wonder whether they have to be. Surely they are valuable in many aspects, but do they have to be useful? It reminds me of a cartoon I saw doing the rounds on the interwebz some time ago (I am not entirely sure about its origin, but it has been attributed to the College of Humanities of the University of Utah):


I have seen some scientist blogs being offended by this, but my own bias quite likes it. Perhaps this is where the utility (if we must) of the arts lies, in complementing the sciences in a fun and humane way. Of course, I wouldn’t have time to have this discussion with an immigration officer, and although I understand that my reply was also charged with feelings brought about by immigration policies not putting the arts in a place of usefulness or value in society, that conversation would be less to do with arts vs sciences and more to with arts vs business (mainly in the US and the UK).

It’s also good that the immigration officer didn’t have the time or inclination to ask me what my paper was about. I can’t imagine that a chat about a site-specific theatre piece exploring ideas of borders in South America with a multicultural cast would have gone down very well.

I had a lovely week in Boston, a city I had never visited before. It was great to visit such iconic institutions as Harvard University and the MIT and to meet interesting new people. It was also fab to catch up with my friend and collaborator Sophie, a talented musician and puppeteer that I had met and worked together with in Edinburgh.

My first post-visa nightmare entrance back to Scotland was smooth. The immigration officers at Edinburgh airport were kind as they always have been with me, but my possession of a Tier 4 visa card still raised the question on arrival: “what are you studying?”. I always feel like I have to crack a joke in these situations, but this time, I proudly said “I’m doing a PhD in theatre at the RCS. Formerly known as the RSAMD, as taxi drivers in Glasgow will never let you forget”. The officer giggled, stamped my passport, wished me all the best, and let me through.

P.S. In addition to the link posted above to a summarised version of the paper, I did a video interview about my project for Black Sheep talks when I was in Boston, which you can watch here.



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