Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Naturalization: Part Two - The Revenge

When you apply for citizenship they hand you a booklet and an audio CD of the 100 civics questions they will fire at you during your upcoming interview. Having not taken an exam in approximately 15 years I was rather excited about this. Mostly because I am a nerd and used to be rather good at exams. I'll also admit that I was 'quietly confident' about passing the written and spoken English portion of the citizenship test. English, why it's practically my mother tongue. Perhaps you wouldn't know that from my grammar or spelling, but in my head I'm brilliant.

Anna and Lucy suffered through weeks of listening to the Citizenship Test CD in my car and now scream 'No! Not Nancy Pelosi' whenever I grab my car keys. I know you're dying to know what the 100 questions are, so here's a link, but if you're too lazy I'll write the 10 questions I was given at the end of this post - feel free to knock yourself out - but I want an honest marks out of ten in the comments section afterwards please.

I actually really enjoyed learning about that 'Congress' thing you have, the 'Constitution' and the brilliant idea of 'Checks and Balances', vetoes, separation of powers etc. A written Constitution - what a concept. The more I read, the more I realized that being allowed to be considered a naturalized citizen is an honour, nay, an honor.

So when the INS interviewer called my name I leaped up and put away my 'Best Short Stories of 2010' - see, everyone, I read English for fun, for a laugh, a ha ha ha (poor Peter Sarstedt reference). I clutched my binder of critical paperwork and followed him behind the magic door. The night before I'd assembled my 'very important paperwork' binder because people in chat rooms had suggested that if you look like you're armed with all the relevant info they won't ask for any of it (true). As I collected bank statements and tax returns I came to the section about 'proof of marital union'.

I asked LK how I was supposed to prove marital union.

"You are a moron" he answered.

"Yes, but how do I prove that I'm your moron?"

"Erm, maybe our children???!! Our children who I am starting to believe are much smarter than you?!"

Good point.

My INS officer led me deep into the bureaucratic corridors of the INS - full of small cubicles, family pictures, and people trying to look American and remember who signed the Declaration of Independence.

I took a seat and he asked me how the fires had been in Santa Barbara. Good question really, for establishing residency (and residual distrust and hatred of your current town). He asked me if I would ever bear arms for the US and I, perhaps misunderstanding, said I would be more than happy to bare arms, or bear alms, whatever was needed. He asked me if I had any money owing to the IRS, whether I'd ever been convicted of a crime? I answered no. He said 'not even a speeding ticket?' I said no, thinking of my 3mph drive down to LA. It is impossible to speed here. He asked if I'd had any traffic violations at all. I told him I'd had a parking ticket when I was in labour with my oldest daughter and hadn't been able to avoid the street sweepers. He seemed satisfied.

He then asked:

  • What's the name of the national anthem?
  • Who is our Governor?
  • If the Vice President and President are out of action who takes over?
  • Name one amendment to voting rights?
  • What ocean lies to the East of the US?
  • Who is in charge of the Executive Branch?
  • What is the state capital?
  • Why did the colonists leave the UK?
  • When was the Constitution written?
  • How many amendments to the Constitution are there?

and finally, he asked me to write 'California is the State with the most people', and I was very tempted to write 'California is the State with the moist people' but I didn't because I am cowed by authority.

He asked me again if I owed any taxes or had ever committed a crime. I was starting to doubt myself at this point. Library fines? Changing lanes without signaling?

But that was it. I made it, I passed. I high-tailed it off to Ikea to spend my money on Stüff like a true American.

Next stop the 'Swearing in Ceremony'. I bet you can't wait can you?

  • Star-spangled banner
  • Arnold Schwarzeneggar (also accepted - The Governator)
  • Nancy Pelosi!!!
  • Any citizen over the age of 18 can vote
  • Atlantic
  • The President
  • Sacramento. Not LA! Don't say LA!
  • Because they were fools
  • 1787
  • 27

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Naturalization: Part One

The reason I went down to LA last week was to continue my application to become a naturalized American citizen.

It's a big decision, one that I'm doing for some of the right reasons and some of the wrong reasons.

It took me four years of lost paperwork, unsigned documents, expired fingerprints, transposed alien numbers, queues, tears and rage at the INS to get my Green Card. I was not anxious to repeat the experience, but permanent residency is only good for 10 years and mine expires in 2012. That seems a long way off - unless it took you 4 years to go through the process first time round.

I knew my decisions were; to renew my Green Card or become a citizen.

I asked my Swedish friend Brunhilde (made up name) which option she would suggest. I knew she'd recently become a US citizen after 30 years of permanent residence.

She wrote: .....'on the plus side, if you become a citizen you will finally be able to get that much sought-after job at the DMV, but it you've ever been a prostitute those dreams will be crushed'.

Something to think about.

In the end I decided on citizenship for the following reasons:

  • I literally could not face the green card rigmarole again.
  • I have lived here for 15 years and have been embraced by this country in a lot of ways. It was time to put up or shut up (plus I now use phrases like 'put up or shut up' - my brain has already been naturalized).
  • I want to vote. Case in point a letter from Santa Barbara's Elementary School District last week to inform us that 'the SB Elementary School District has failed to reach basic standards in English Language Arts and Math'. Enough said.
  • I discovered I did not have to give up my British citizenship (this one was huge).
  • Despite suggestions to the contrary, I have never had sex for money.
  • I can't say 'British citizenship' without saying 'British Shitizenship'.
  • Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness. Ha ha ha.
  • Finally, flexibility. I can live in the UK with dual citizenship, I cannot do that as a permanent resident.

I wrote a big fat check to the INS, collected my documents, filled out my N-400 (explaining that I have not been a drunk or a prostitute - I'm not kidding), and waited.

Within two weeks I had an appointment letter for my 'biometric evaluation'. Clearly they either do not have as many people to process as 10 years ago, or, more likely, they are far more keen for you to be a citizen than a permanent resident.

The next step was my interview, English language test and civics exam.

When I finally got in the building I joined a crowded room full of nervous looking people facing a wall. The only thing on the wall was a head-shaped hole covered by a metal grille. This was the INS I have come to know. I opened my book and prepared to wait. I was definitely surprised when my name was called only 15 minutes later. I approached the metal grille only to be told I was in the wrong room.

Ha! English language comprehension test failed. I had misread my appointment letter.

I raced across the building to another eerily similar room full of anxious looking people studying their booklet 'A Guide To Naturalization'. I placed my appointment letter on a pile of others in a box and settled in. It is a common misconception that you automatically become a citizen after marrying an American. It actually only entitles you to apply; first for permanent residency (a Green Card) and then, a minimum of 3-5 years later, for citizenship. There are countless forms, interviews, document-checking etc to be done. Make no mistake, anyone who has become a US citizen in recent years has worked hard and paid a lot of money to so.

Once every five minutes of so a harried-looking INS representative would enter the room - people would stop what they were doing and a hush would fall. The immigration official would then trip his or her way through someone's name and they would both disappear. We all had plenty of time to see all the officials come and go, and peg our hopes on getting one of the least surly.

Finally, my name was called, my number was up, and I disappeared in to the bowels of the INS.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

You Can't Get There From Here

Earlier this week I had to drive to LA for an appointment. I do not love driving in heavy traffic, or on freeways with more lanes than the Duggars have children, but on paper this looked easy. I can see the 101 freeway from my house. 100 miles later, the 101 freeway goes straight past the Department of Justice building in downtown LA - my destination.

How hard could it be?

My appointment was at 10am. A couple of days before, I canvassed my friends as to what time I should leave Santa Barbara. The answers ranged from:

  • 6:30am
  • 7ish
  • why aren't you in the car already
  • yesterday
Turns out they were all correct. I left on the nose of 7am, and drove at the speed of light as far as Woodland Hills (North LA). It was a beautiful morning, dolphins played in the surf at the Rincon, and the Hollywood sign peeped out from behind the smog.

It then took me 1hr 45minutes to go the next 15 miles. Stressful at the best of times, but particularly so if you have a plane to catch, or in my case, an immigration interview.

In LA the traffic signs give you distances in minutes, not miles. I'm sure the same is true of many major cities, but where I grew up the major driving hazard was having to overtake a tractor on a narrow country lane. I am not equipped to deal with 6 lanes of traffic all going at 3 mph. Also, even though Anna could jog faster than the speed of traffic, you still have to have your wits about you. The 101 freeway becomes the 405 - and the two left hand lanes peel off to continue the 101. Something you become gradually aware of when the right hand lanes become impenetrably congested for 10 minutes, and it only dawns on you why (because everyone has been getting in lane 5 miles prior) when it's far too late. Good luck trying to ease your Honda Pilot in to that impenetrable wall of Hummers and Priuses!

The LA freeway system is like the London Underground. You have to know where you're going before you get on the thing, because the last thing you want is to be that person, or that car, fighting against traffic when you realize you're going the wrong way. I've been the victim of London's Circle Line on more than one occasion - I didn't realize trains went both East and West, and that you can also end up on a branch line sitting for 15 minutes at Aldgate East when you thought a circle meant one continuous loop.

The same is true of the LA freeway system, because yes, technically you can just get off at the next off-ramp, but then suddenly, because this is America, an off-ramp delivers you deep in to a neighbourhood, miles from anywhere, practically in some Cholo's back garden with no way back to civilization. You may be able to see the freeway, but there is no way in hell you'll ever be able to get back on it.

You can't get there from here.

So you just stay in your lane praying that the skyscrapers of downtown will suddenly emerge out of the sea of stucco around you, and that you haven't accidentally peeled off on to the 10 and are now hurtling (at 3mph) towards West Covina.

I kept calling LK, surreptitiously of course, because cell phone use is in fact illegal. I would say 'I'm at Topanga Canyon' or 'Sunset' or 'The LA school for Armenian Raffia Weavers' where am I? Am I close to downtown yet? And he would answer, 'fucked if I know, sounds like you're in LA, don't you have a map?'.

Why was I going to immigration to further my relationship with this man?!

I finessed the 101 to the 405 - the source of all the traffic, or so I thought - and was more than a little surprised to see the traffic signs indicating a further 55 minutes to downtown.

Must be a different downtown I thought.


I finally made it, the thick smog obscuring the skyscrapers until they were right above me, meaning that I was practically there before I knew it. I cut across 17 lanes of traffic, missed my turn for Union Station (my intended parking) and instead pulled in to the closest multi-storey carpark I could find. Diving 5 stories in to an underground carpark is a little unnerving in an earthquake hotspot, but fortunately it was the least of my worries. I left my car in it's subterranean mausoleum and was three floors up in the elevator when it occurred to me I should probably have made a note where I left it. See, I'm just not an urban person.

I arrived at immigration 10 minutes before my allotted appointment time. I'll tell that story at a later date, but let me just say that the INS has not changed one bit. I was clutching my appointment letter which stated 'please do not arrive more than 30 minutes before your appointment as seating space is limited'. Of course they fail to tell you that you have to join a queue of literally hundreds, a 45 minute queue, just to get in the building.

So no, I don't love LA. But I do love my new Hemnes buffet from Ikea - a 2 hour cross-city side trip I took on my way home, because the LA freeway system? Once you've been through the immigration system - just not scary anymore.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Barbie World

Barbies are taking over our household, with naked plastic limbs spilling out of cars and bedrooms. Anna is at a fever pitch of excitement today because *gasp* Barbie Fairytopia Legend of the Rainbow arrives tonight via Netflix. She won't say Barbie Fairytopia. It's always 'Barbie Fairytopia Magic of the Rainbow'. It's impossible not to laugh when she says 'tonight we get to watch Barbie Fairytopia Magic of the Rainbow'. Breath.

Thanks to Netflix we don't have to own these things, just borrow them. They get a lot of air-time, and while pretty nauseatingly pink and blonde, there is often a 'girls kick ass' message instead of the usual Disneyesque boy meets girl, which is good. Barbie 'Mermaidia' features a surfer girl, and an interview with Stephanie Gilmore - the #1 world ranked female surfer. That is something my Teeny Wahini can get excited about.

I can't believe I'm describing the finer points of Barbie movies, but such is my life. Anyhoo, they do get requested a lot, by both girls, and despite me concluding that they had a positive overall message, they seem to have a subversive underbelly. Case in point, Lucy's vocabulary:

No = Mo
Yes = Shesh
Bellybutton = Beyn
Please =Peez
Orange = Unge, not to be confused with,
Lunch = Untch


Barbie = Barbie. Barbie! Peez TV Barbie!! Possibly the only world she has so far mastered.

This week at school Anna was the 'shining star'. Picked completely at random it basically means she gets to be 'interviewed' and her responses, along with favourite photos are put on the classroom noticeboard for all to admire.

Some sample questions:

  1. I am proud of myself for?
  2. Something you like about yourself?
  3. What are you goals for the future?

Anna's responses:

  1. My blue eyes
  2. My golden hair
  3. To be nice

If she'd have said 'world peace' I would have fainted on the spot. LK told me off for 'coaching' her on her answers to produce a slightly more acceptable:

I stand by my editing. She was beginning to sound a bit like a barbie, and by that I mean Klaus Barbie. Those answers were one step away from 'I love being white and I believe Islam to be a cancer on the Western world'. I did coach a little in terms of 'perhaps you should say something you've been proud of achieving, instead of proud of being'. Much eye-rolling from LK, which is why the 'blue eyes' comment remains - but most of her class can't read, only the parents, and I did not want everyone to think we were the Ayrian supremacists of Kindergarten.

It should go without saying, but perhaps it doesn't - we are not rocking the 'Master Race' at home by the way. LK's Lederhosen are strictly for play.

As usual, I'm over-thinking things. What would you have done?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Earthquake Weather

When I first moved here, far too long ago now, it didn't take me long to hear the phrase 'earthquake weather'. To say I was hyper sensitive to the issue of earthquakes is an understatement. I experienced my first 'shaker' my very first morning in California -as next door's washing machine vibrated through the wall.

My evil housemate told me that windy weather was often a sign of an earthquake to come. Yes, I know, I was a *tad* gullible. Mind you, she also told me that Kate Moss was so skinny she was practically 'emancipated', so I was on to her pretty fast in terms of her Wikipedian prophecies.I am technically a geography graduate, so the hardened scientist in me snorts at the idea of 'earthquake weather'. Real hardened scientists are reading this and snorting at the idea of a geography graduate being a scientist - and I will admit that I know far more about writing essays with the word 'polemic' in them than any hard science. Still, wind = changes in pressure, or my brother in the vicinity, it does not bring about tectonic shifts. Unless my brother's had a curry.

Despite this, people do insist on talking about earthquake weather, and we have had a truly bizarre week of weather. 110º last Monday, squally Bridlington in August overcastness today. People are muttering. None of them seem to agree on exactly what defines earthquake weather though. Some say wind. Some say freakishly hot weather. Some say we've had both in the space of a week and we are therefore DOOMED.

If you google it, the jury is certainly out. This article from the New Scientist seems to point towards a strange set of cloud formations bringing DOOM. Wikipedia says no! Snopes says no! I say we have a polemic on our hands people.

Have you heard of earthquake weather? Are you a believer? What do you believe?

Quite frankly I'm sure the good people at Oxbridge are going to confiscate my degree for even posting this. I do not believe in earthquake weather, but I do believe in animals going bonkers before a big quake. My money's on the squirrels.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Pumpkin Patch

This weekend we pretended to be Americans experiencing fall, instead of a week of 110º temperatures.

That's a terrible case of hemorrhoids you've got there Lucy.

Sisterly affection. Very, very briefly.

How long do I have to hold this smile?

Lucy fell in love with this one....

....and was none too happy when told it was too heavy to take home.

Good times.