The face of America

I’m face to face with the face of America.

And I have to say that it’s not pretty. (Not that that I would ever dare say so to its face).

It’s a little too wide for a start. Not, in fact, unlike the shape of America itself. The short cropped hair and small deep-set eyes add to the impression that this is a head that somehow came sideways out of the womb.

It used to be thought that you could determine the pathology of a man by the shape of his head. According to my 1893 copy of ‘Ogilvie’s Enclopaedia of Useful Information’, ‘small and average-sized heads often astonish us by their brilliancy and learning, and, perhaps, eloquence, yet they fail in that commanding greatness which impresses and sways mind’. This is no small head in front of me. I look for other signs of greatness.

The head that contains the face of America is turned towards a computer screen, keeping me in its field of vision with an air of disinterested disdain. So this is what ‘passive aggressive’ looks like.

I feel guilty.

The face of America instructs me to place my index finger on the pad and look at the camera. Every time I try to enter the United States that unpaid parking ticket from 1981 pushes its way to the forefront of my consciousness. It pisses me off. I’m hardly going to be deported for a minor vehicular violation from twenty-six years ago, am I? The look I’m getting from the face of America pulls me up sharp. I can see in his eyes that he knows about the parking ticket. My heart beats faster. He’s not going to let me in. I wonder, if I’m turned away, whether the Club Class upgrade I got on the outbound trip would apply to the return? He’s telling me to press harder. Ros, who has ice running through her veins, always has difficulties with this procedure. Her fingers never leave a print. She could have a great alternative career as a Cat Burglar, my fingerprintless wife.

The face of America wants to know what I do for a living. Always a difficult question to answer. With a wife as President I’m technically a first lady, but I fear such a response would be badly misconstrued.

Why are American Immigration Officials so aggressive? Americans, by and large, are friendly welcoming people who like you to have a nice day. Strangers will readily greet you like a long lost friend on the sidewalk particularly if, like me, you’re accompanied by a Yorkshire Terrier and an exuberant Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy. It’s true that toy dogs are a Babe Magnet, even with a middle-aged man at the end of the leash, but I’m becoming increasingly concerned that they don’t fit this new hard urban image I’m trying to cultivate. All the girls in Starbucks and all the local drop dead gorgeous dental assistants think of me as that guy with those cute little dogs. That’s all they want to talk about. And then they go and see me driving around in my pastel blue open-topped Beetle Convertible. What’s the point in not shaving, wearing ripped jeans and talking in a gravely voice if I’m going to handicap my masculinity with accoutrements like that?

Thankfully I’m without dogs or car as I stand to attention in front of Mr ‘I’m Protecting the Borders of a Bigger and More Important Country than Yours’. Why is it that Immigration Officials seem to dislike immigrants so? An Advertising Executive is expected to love ads (which, with the quality of advertising over here, is, quite frankly, pretty suspect), so why don’t Immigration Officers love Immigrants? Why aren’t we greeted with a big smile and a huge hug every time we bring our Old World sense of superiority into the country? This land is built on immigration. Your average American will be as likely to admit to Native American parentage as a Christian Fundamentalist is to have the Spotted Black Bass at the top of his family tree. Everyone here is a product of immigration, and yet all of a sudden immigrants are Persona Non Grata.

A recent definition concluded that being British ‘is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign.’ Sadly, it seems that America, the land of the free, the place of opportunity, where one out of every nine citizens was born in a foreign country (and the other eight have a grandparent who was), is beginning to assume the characteristics of a little Englander.

“Have you got a boyfriend over here?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You’ve entered the United States a number of times over the last two years. Have you got a boyfriend here?”

“No, I haven’t. I’ve got a boyfriend back in England.”

“You might have two.” The face of America sneered. Angela, our former Nanny, was made to feel quite uncomfortable.

The poster plastered around the Immigration area that tells us these people are the face of America doesn’t paint Uncle Sam in the most flattering of lights. It is true that immigration officials around the world personify their country. English Immigration Officers are appropriately deferential and give every appearance of having come straight from the set of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’. Their Canadian equivalents are delightfully friendly, but mind-numbingly slow, as if they have all the time in the world. The Swiss simply wave you through with a casual nonchalance that only the neutral can affect. (Have you noticed that in Heathrow or any of the American airports you’re obliged to carve your rubbery steak with plasticine playschool knifes, while the security point at Geneva airport will happily sell you a Swiss army knife with a locking blade large enough to comfortably fillet either a deer or an air stewardess? Who’s going to terrorise a country that makes cuckoo clocks? Why bother?). England, Canada, Switzerland, these are countries whose character is accurately represented by those who meet and greet you.

The face that America projects through its immigration officials is not the nice and friendly one I encounter day in day out, but the darker side of a country that has a bit of a thing about authority and bureaucracy.

Americans certainly have a weakness for processes, rules and form filling. Last week I passed my second driving test in two years (a Connecticut license not being good enough for Illinois) not by virtue of any skill behind the wheel, but as a result of successfully navigating myself through the labyrinth of the Chicago Driver Service Facility. To be passed competent to drive I had to find and then present myself to ten different bureaucrats and give each of them answers that ticked the right box. It was a little like one of those treasure hunts with a sequential series of clues that Ros used to organise for the children, only much easier.

The medical questionnaire I had to complete on the behalf of my nine year old daughter as part of her application form for a new local doctor was an altogether much more testing affair. I was particularly stumped by the question, ‘Do you practice safe sex? Yes or No?’ Multiple-choice questions in America make no allowance for caveats, ambiguity or shades of grey. No ‘Ifs’ or ‘Buts’ it’s simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. I found myself with little choice than to answer the question truthfully. I responded that Natasha doesn’t practice safe sex. I hate to think what our next medical insurance premium is going to be.

The face of America would contend that his duty is to protect the borders rather than beam beatifically at every potential terrorist passing through Security. He will tell you that the world is a much more dangerous place than it was in the days when United Airlines flew under the slogan of “Come fly the friendly skies”.

But I’m not so sure. I remember my forty-five minute interrogation as a fresh-faced youth back in 1981, before terrorism had even been invented in the USA.

And, turning the clock back even further, surely the danger was even closer to home when those Reds were actually under American beds?

Or when those nuclear missiles in Cuba were nearly set off by that guy banging the desk with his shoe?

It’s nothing more than an ugly face on a beautiful country.

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