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):

sciencehumanities-886x590

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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A USA Visa in Three Acts

ACT I
scene i

Santana do Livramento. A large living room, Flav sits at the laptop and types.

Typetypetypetypenotaterroristnevertraffickedhumanoranimalswholeorinpiecesnotacriminalneverbeenneversupportednevernevernocheckallthenoboxescheckcheckchektypetypetypesignsubmit.

I do wonder if anyone ever answers ‘yes’ to any of these questions. I mean… you’re kinda fucked either way, aren’t you? If you are, or have ever been, a criminal and you say so, they’re not going to let you in their country. If you are, or have ever been, a criminal and you deny it, they’ll find out you’ve lied and they’re not going to let you in their country.

scene ii

Same. A few days later.

Currency exchange rate win – US dollar down – thumbs up for cheaper fee! Book appointment – they say Brasilia is never busy, but I don’t have free accommodation there. It would be cool to go to Belo Horizonte for the first time (remember that time when I wrote a BH travel guide without having ever set foot in the place? Lol), but again, no free couch. Rio or Sao Paulo, then? Not been to Sao Paulo in a while (remember that friend I keep promising to visit there?), aye, go on then. Booked. Flights. Booked. Ouch.

Facebooks friend in SP.

O hai, remember how I said I would come visit at some point? So how about this date? Yeah, I mean 31st May, June doesn’t have 31 days. Yeah, already booked flights. Oh… crap. Chile, huh? That’s… awesome. Love Chile. Beautiful country. New girlfriend? Oh, fab. In Chile? On the 31st May? Excellent. Ach, well. (surely there will be hostels in SP) Flatmate? Ok. Sorry… but thanks!

ACT II

scene i

Porto Alegre. Big glass building on busy avenue surrounded by corporatey-businessy-type buildings. USA flag, motherfucking bald eagle staring down at you.

No queues at all. Really nice, polite people. Open bag, lemme see, rummage, rummage, that’s great thank you, on you go. Metal detector, no beeps. That’s lovely, thank you, on to the first desk, please. Appointment? Yes, everything seems to be ok, would you like your passport posted back to you or to collect here? Collection is quicker and you can do it on Sundays. Postal services not guaranteed. Collection it is. Thank you, please take a seat and they will call you shortly. Shortly. Please, look into the camera – click – thank you for your soul. Please, fingers on the pad – BRIGHT LIGHT – thank you for your identity forever. Sticker on passport, appointment in Sao Paulo confirmed. Kthxbye.

ACT III

scene i

Sao Paulo. Paulista Avenue, outside the Art Museum, phone in hand, confused look, wandering back and forth to the back of the Museum esplanade.

How the fuck am I supposed to get down there to get the bus? Flying?

scene ii

Gets off the bus, follows the various signs indicating ‘American Consulate? Park here’, ‘American Consulate? Take passport photos here’, ‘American Consulate? Have a coffee before you go in here’. Finds American Consulate. Takes a while to find the entrance.

DOOR LADY: Good morning, do you have an appointment?

FLAV: Yes, I do. Here’s the confirmation. Hands sheet with printed bar code over.

DOOR LADY: Great, thanks. You are not allowed to go in with any weapons, lighters, or electronic equipment, including mp3 players and your phone.

FLAV: Can I just turn my phone off?

DOOR LADY: No, you’re not allowed to go in with your phone on you.

FLAV: Ok. Do you have lockers?

DOOR LADY: No, sorry.

FLAV: Right… I can’t go back home and re-schedule this, so what do I do?

DOOR LADY: There are lockers outside that you can rent.

FLAV: Fine. Where can I find them?

DOOR LADY: Sorry, can’t tell you.

FLAV: Fantastic. Turns around in despair and sees the parade of ‘American Consulate? Rent a locker space here’ signs across the street. Chooses one of the garage spaces, places phone inside a mini locker and pays R$ 10 to the girl at the makeshift table with a card machine.

scene iii

FLAV: I’m back. No phone.

DOOR LADY: Lovely. Scans bar code on paper. In you go.

SECOND DOOR MAN: Can I have a look in your bag, please? Ok. Go ahead.

THIRD DOOR LADY: Do you have an appointment? Scans bar code on paper. Thank you, please join the yellow line.

Stands in the yellow line for 45 minutes.

FIRST DESK LADY: Can I have your passport, please? Any other passports? Thank you, please join the security line.

Stands in the security line for 20 minutes.

SECURITY MAN: No jackets, no phones, no jewellery, no phones, no lighters, no jackets, no jewellery, all papers in the plastic folder, no phones, no weapons, no jackets, no belts, no mp3 players, no lighters, papers in the plastic folder, nothing in pockets, no jackets, no phones, no jewellery, no lighters, no weapons, no jackets… ad infinitum

X-Ray. Metal Detector. Clear. Go.

scene iv

A bunker in the back garden of the American Consulate SP.

SECOND DESK LADY: Can I see your passport, please? That’s great, thank you. Please join line number 8.

Stands in line number 8 for 10 minutes, eavesdropping on people’s interviews.

LINE LADY: Please go to window number 3.

WINDOW MAN: (in Portuguese with an American accent) Bom dia! Mão direita aqui, por favor. Sim, direita. Obrigado. Qual é o motivo da visita aos Estados Unidos? Oh, do you have an invitation letter or something? Boston? February? What kind of conference? Art? But the computer says you’re a translator. Hm, ok. What type of art? Theater? What type of theater? Hahaha. Present a paper on what? Oh, that makes sense! How long did it take you to pick up a Scottish accent? I can’t understand it sometimes. Married? Ok. Well, good luck. Your request has been approved and here’s some more information. It will take about 10 days for your passport to be returned.

scene v

Three days later.Still in Sao Paulo. Email pops up on screen.

Your passport is ready for collection in Porto Alegre.

Collect passport with visa a week later. Celebrate. 

THE END