Sunday, 26 September 2010

Waiving My Turpitude (In Public)

This was originally a submission for the McSweeney's column competition, but since they haven't got back to me I'm assuming it was unsuccessful, so I'm posting it here, because apparently I can't take a hint that my writing isn't good enough...

I have a friend who has just left the UK for China, to teach English to the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of the revolution. He went to the Chinese Embassy in London on July 30 (I know the date because it is the same day that I proposed to Gina, on a pedal-boat, in Hyde Park. The romance was no less diminished by the fact that we had already agreed to get married, filed our visa application and had already changed our Facebook status to “engaged” an hour earlier, making it far more official than my great-grandmother’s ring ever could), and was apparently in and out within 20 minutes. Presumably including the time it took to tell the security guards that he was carrying no opium or religious tracts on his person.

When I went to the US to study in 2006 I had to attend an interview at the American Embassy, whereat my passport would be taken and returned to me within two to three weeks with a shiny and ostentatious visa slapped across the middle pages. I spent the better part of a day sitting in there, reading a book of short stories (no electronic devices are allowed in the embassy), waiting for the (by their own admission) random, supermarket-deli-style ticketing system to flash up my number and direct me to a booth where I would be fingerprinted, retinally scanned and rigorously grilled as to why I wanted to study in America. They stopped short of full cavity searches, but apparently one of the requirements for a K-1 (Spouse) visa is a full medical, so my fingers are crossed and cheeks clenched on that issue. The US Embassy Experience (which both Six Flags and Disney theme parks have, inexplicably, hitherto failed to get on board with) has several columns worth of material. I mention it here to illustrate the difference between entry tests for one of the most repressive, controlling regimes in the world and those of The Land of the Free. “Kafka-esque” would be an appropriate word to describe the entire process.

“Fucking-with-you-because-they-can” could also be used to describe the ordeal of applying to live, breathe and perhaps one day become American (I love beef jerky and driving big cars, so I’m kind of halfway there already, right? Right?). Personally, I don’t think this charge is fair. Certainly it’s overly bureaucratic, long-winded and intrusive, and there are a number of individuals within the system who may abuse or at least test the limits of the power they are given (I don’t think it would un-American of me to level this accusation at TSA airport officials), but this is universal in any job where the balance of power rests on the side of the employee and not the customer or client. What it actually speaks to is that what America perceives as protecting and promoting the honour of being American (and the reflected glory that shines upon any foreigner who lives in America because, hell, that’s what everybody in the world secretly wants), carrying the torch of freedom and justice, the rest of the world perceives as paranoia.

At this point it’s hard not to acknowledge 9/11, and the tremendous effect this had on the American psyche. There’s nothing more dangerous (well, maybe pissed-off she-bears or drunken Cubs fans at playoff) than a nation which has had its hubris highlighted by the very thing that shatters it (I apologise for the glib over-simplification of the issue, however I refuse to apologise for putting an “S” in apologise. If Americans and Brits didn’t argue about their petty differences they might start arguing about the fundamental ones, and then we’d all be screwed). Whilst it was America that suffered the physical blow on 9/11, the entire world shook in response, and nowhere is safe from what I may as well bow in deference to Fox News and call the Specter of Terrorism. Not even Canada, and who’d want to live there anyway, eh?

The point is, I don’t believe there is any real need for America’s overly-sensitive stance on its immigration policies. Nothing highlights this better than the visa waiver form, that little piece of card you always forget to fill in on the plane so waste precious time trying to find a pen and complete when you land, feeling your holiday trickle away as you try to remember the exact address of where you will be staying and wondering whether the half-bag of potato chips you have in your carry-on that you bought for something to do before the flight counts as fruits and/or vegetables.

Brits, and other approved nationalities deemed trustworthy enough to not need a visa for a stay of 90 days or less, have to declare all the obvious things, including whether they are carrying cash or property worth over $10,000 or carrying any form of communicable disease, which presumably takes care of the full socioeconomic spectrum. As well as these egalitarian demands, the form contains three peculiar and delightfully paranoid requests. Now, it kind of makes sense that the authorities be informed whether a visitor was actively involved in the ruling German party from 1933-1945, but honestly I don’t think a shady 90-something with a funny accent, in or out of uniform, poses much of a threat to the Lower East Side. Similarly, maybe more relevantly, someone ought to be made aware if a convicted war criminal were on the loose in Disneyworld, perhaps plotting the genocide of innocent cartoon mice (questionable rumours about Walt Disney’s personal prejudices aside). Then again, this all relies on an open declaration of such. I’m not saying war criminals are untrustworthy, but...

What always makes me pause for thought, however, is when the form asks me if I have ever been arrested or convicted of “crimes of moral turpitude.” The online guide helpfully elaborates on this- “[s]uch offenses generally involve conduct which is inherently base, vile, or depraved and contrary to the accepted rules of morality and the duties owed to persons or society in general.” It’s not the need to know this information that amuses me so much as its cold, humourless phrasing. The problem with conduct that is inherently base, vile, depraved etc is that it’s so often inherently funny as well. I’ve never exposed myself in public, nor have I any plans to, and even if I did would hope to be smart enough not to do it in the presence of an officer of the law, but that takes nothing away from the fact that, at bottom (hehe), the idea makes you chuckle (see?).

I guess it doesn’t help that “turpitude” makes me think of “turgid” and, honestly, who can keep a straight face when they read that word? Exhibitionists who try to ride rollercoasters naked; ex-sideshow freaks who were arrested for picking pockets while they distracted people by eating toads whole; the French (I am joking; the morality of our Gallic neighbours was never in question, and our great historical rivalry with the French is a fantastic way for Brits to endear themselves to Americans)… would you truly refuse these people entry to America? If variety is the spice of life, then the morally turpituous are a bathtub full of hot sauce, and it’s not your fault the maid walked in at that moment, and her brother was a policeman...

I’m mostly OK with being asked these things though. Every time I fill in the visa waiver (and my pen hovers, inquisitive and curious, above the “Yes” box) it reminds me that when I am married, and permitted by way of a shiny, ostentatious visa to enter and remain in America legally, there should be no question of my intentions or morals. I guess America is fine with moral turpitude so long as it occurs within the sanctity of marriage.

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