Friday, January 20, 2006

My TV told me " We rule the world!"

If you are preparing to go abroad for a short- or long term, and decide to consult the State Department and order any brochures from them that deal with foreign travel, they will be happy to supply you with the most up-to-date information on visas, travel restrictions, and tell you what to do and what not to do in foreign countries. Your passport will also list various travel-related precautions and instructions on a variety of issues with subsequent warnings about things such as dual nationality, and how some foreign countries may consider you a citizen and even impress you in their armed services. They may list countries that you are not allowed to go to, as well. Traveling to foreign lands can often be a complicated process, and going there for employment can be even harder what with some very stringent visa requirements. In order for me to get a visa for Saudi Arabia, for example, I had to supply a stack of documents that was over an inch thick, and it took me six weeks to compile them all.

This is, however, not the picture you get in Hollywood movies and on the mainstream English-language news channels. According to them, America ( and, maybe Britain, as well) rule the world. Americans in these movies are never shown standing in lines at foreign embassies, running around to get medical and police clearances or paying for visas. They are never shown crouching in toilets while collecting their own stool and urine specimens to submit to doctors approved by those embassies as part of their visa medical requirements. They are not portrayed waiting at police stations to get fingerprinted and paying for criminal background checks or filling out long and detailed embarkation cards. They are just shown entering the countries freely and doing whatever they want while being surrounded by people who are falling over backwards to greet them; and, maybe, a small number of enemies who are trying to kill them. These last ones get killed in the end, of course. By Americans and Britons who are allowed to wield guns in foreign countries? Yeah, right!

The Hollywood movie "Quigley Down Under " with Tom Selleck going to Australia was a blatant example of such a simplistic portrayal of international travel. Quigley goes to Oz, gets off the boat without much immigration clearance, swaggers around making snide remarks about the locals and the country, helps out some poor people there and takes on a local villain who always talks about how he had been born on the wrong continent- meaning, he would have much rather been an American than an Aussie. For some reason, there is a rather poor Mexican-American girl from Texas that also travels around Australia with Tom Selleck. It makes it look like he is, in fact, in Texas, only with wild dingoes howling all around him. Neither Quigley, nor his companion seem to be carrying a travel pouch with money, round trip tickets, (which might be required by the Immigration), and/or passports with visa stamps in them. And did Quigley have a gun there? He was shooting it. Without a gun permit? Well maybe that was a long time ago when they probably allowed Americans to bear arms in Australia.

James Bond movies, too, show a Briton in faraway lands who hardly ever goes through immigration formalities, but who shoots his guns right and left, starts explosions, and almost never faces the huge armed forces of the foreign states that he travels to. He just gets in, outsmarts the local police , maybe shoots a few terrorists, gets his dangerous job done, and leaves with a girl hanging on his arm. How does he walk back through their immigration after having killed so many people, even with a diplomatic passport? He does often fly out by plane or helicopter, but crossing another country's airspace, even on the way out, after having detonated so many bombs, can trigger the scrambling of a few air force jets and subsequent shooting down of his aircraft. Especially in some remote countries like Azerbaijan. Don't they have radars? I can think of a number of movies like that. "Bourne Conspiracy" comes to mind. He is shown as living for years in foreign lands ( with what visa, I wonder), speaking some five languages without an accent ( supposedly), even though he does have an accent in some of them (I speak several languages and I could hear it), and, generally, accomplishing his violent missions in such nations with only minimal resistance from the locals. Where are the military of those countries (numbering hundred of thousands if not millions) when he pulls off his feats of arms in front of everybody? And how come I never see such people fill out even one disembarkation card or a customs declaration? At least, in most of such movies, they don't.

OK, ok, maybe it is because they are on secret diplomatic or military missions. Maybe they just carry very special passports which are quietly approved by the local authorities. But the things they do in those countries... my, oh my!

The news also shows US ( and British) soldiers with guns being greeted like liberators by the locals and again, they are never seen at immigration offices waiting in queues to get an extension stamp. Well, maybe they did not need those in Iraq, granted, they are soldiers, and it is a war zone. I hope you, on the other hand, will not think that you yourself will be able to do anything even close to that.

Yup, don't try that at home, especially other nations' homes. Just because the movies portray America and its allies "ruling" the world, and, because in diplomatic and military circles America and its allies can exert significant influence upon many other countries, it does not mean that you, as an individual citizen of the US ( or the UK) are also 'ruling' the world. When you go to visit those countries or work there, you are subject to their visa regulations, and they decide who they want to admit and who they do not want to let into the country. It is fully discretionary as it is their country, after all. They can deny you visa without having to give you any explanation whatsoever. If you do not know the local laws and break them, you can be liable for penalties such as lengthy jail terms and heavy fines. And you may not have the same rights as a local citizen. There may be no jury of your peers, either. The US constitution does not apply in foreign lands. It is as simple as that. When you live in their countries, until you become a citizen there, you are a guest, short- or long term. And you can be declared a Persona Non Grata at any time, too, if they do not like you for some reason or if some well-connected local calls the Immigration on you.

The US State Department knows that very well, and will be happy to supply you with all the information pertaining to your upcoming trip. You need to get informed, keep your head down and follow the rules in those countries. The Hollywood movie makers may have a different version of the world, but it is naive at best. Do not get any ideas from them. The producers and the screen writers most probably have never lived in the countries that they are writing about to begin with.

Some years back, two US tourists arrived at Manila International Airport. They had been drinking and were visibly inebriated. When the Philippine immigration officers asked them for their passports, they began laughing. When the officials asked them for their disembarkation cards which needed to have been filled out on the plane and duly signed, along with the sworn Customs Declaration Form, one of them got angry at the officer and exclaimed: "You are a pain in the a..!". They were probably watching too many movies about how the US liberated the Philippines, and assumed that the Filipinos were now going to unroll the red carpet for them. The officer called for help, the authorites came, they were escorted out of the immigration area and put back on the plane. They were also probably blacklisted and prohibited from ever coming back to the Philippines again. The next day the Philippine newspapers announced the news: " Drunk, boorish foreigners deported." Not drunk "Americans". Drunk "foreigners". So much for "ruling the world".

Another US tourist was probably under the impression that he did not need a visa to get into Australia. He just took the next airplane, landed in Sydney, but was stopped at the Immigration and asked for his visa. You see, Australian visas have to be obtained in advance- they are not given upon arrival. Not to Americans, at least. Please keep checking the State Department announcements for the up-to-date visa requirements by all these different countries because that fellow obviously didn't.

He was refused entry, turned back and put on the next airplane home to the States. Obviously, he thought that if Tom Selleck could just strut into the country, he could do it, too. The Australian Immigration obviously had other ideas.

Even in the countries that are supposed to be US allies, individual US citizens are often not treated differently from other foreigners. In Japan and in Thailand, some bars have a "No Foreigners Allowed" policy. Quite a few hotels and many landlords refuse to admit foreigners in Japan; Americans, or otherwise. Some places in Thailand even have "No Tourists- Thai People Only" signs. That means "Americans” or "Britons" as well. It is their country, they make the rules.

While it may say on the Internet that many nations "do not require visas" of US tourists when they arrive, it is still basically "a visa upon arrival" when they stamp your passport there. So, even if some travel advisory may says "no visa required for a short stay", still, as a tourist, you are on visa, no matter how you look at it.

Americans and Brits have an easier time with visas than citizens of many other countries not necessarily because "the US/UK rules the world", but , generally, because they are citizens of a richer country, and are wanted as tourists in many places. The same can be said about the Japanese and Singaporeans- these do not need "advanced" visas to go to many countries, especially those whose economies are less prosperous than theirs. However, in order to work or live abroad long-term, you need all sorts of permits, visas, medical tests, document verifications; and you will often have to jump through many bureaucratic hoops before you are allowed to remain there beyond a relatively short tourist stay. If you have big money you are welcome as an investor in a great number of countries, but you still need to go through lots and lots of red tape before you can stay there permanently or semi-permanently. You may choose to live on tourist visas, but you will need to be leaving the countries regularly to renew them, and the authorities there one day may simply ask you- "Hey, how come you've been coming here so often? Got any business here?". What will you say to them? I hope you will not say, " I am an American (or British), and we rule the world".

If you, God forbid, break the law and get in trouble in some other country, your embassy may or may not help you. Most of the time they can only visit you and work with the local officials to make sure that laws are being followed when you are brought to justice and, possibly, ask for clemency; but even then, it is iffy. Michael Fay, an American teenager who was arrested in Singapore some years back for vandalizing cars, was sentenced to be caned- the US Embassy took it up with the authorities, but were only able to reduce the number of times he would be hit with that instrument of punishment-the dreaded cane. He still had to undergo the excruciating pain of being struck with that savage stick. And the prohibition against such cruel and unusual punishment may or may not apply in Singapore.

Laws for equality, against discrimination, US nationality- and citizenship laws, and other Western laws often do not apply in other countries. In Islamic lands, the Shariah law rules. Tribal Arabs laws also often rule. One Australian was arrested in Saudi Arabia because his Asian wife had been caught stealing. According to the Shariah law, a husband seems to be responsible for his wife's crimes. Last time I checked, he was still in the Saudi jail. Some people who have children born in Saudi Arabia or in Japan mistakenly think that the children can now qualify for citizenship there. "Well, isn't it like in the US? The kid was born here- he is now a Saudi/Japanese". Oh, no. This is not America. He is not a Saudi or Japanese. It is not that simple. "But in the States..." Well, but you are not in the States now.

Many countries also have agreements that favor citizens of their little group of nations as far as granting visas, residence permits and work permits is concerned. This will include Americans as far as travel to Canada goes, and as far as entering Mexico, but if an American wants to go to Brazil or Paraguay, he needs to apply for a visa. However, an Argentinean can just walk into Brazil without any prior approval. I remember how envious I was of Argentinean citizens while I was at the airport in Sao Paolo in 2005; I had to wait six hours to catch my next flight to Johannesburg and could have just gone on a mini-tour of the biggest city in Brazil, but as a US citizen I could not get through their immigration, while Argentinean passengers were just heading towards the counters and breezing right through them. They were members of the Mercosur economic community, but I wasn't. I felt the same way when I could not just walk across the border with my US passport from Thailand into Laos, while Thais could just cross the bridge over the Mekong and go shopping on the Laotian side with only their ID cards. They were ASEAN members and I wasn't.

Gulf Arabs also form a community called the GCC- the Gulf Cooperation Council. They can usually travel to, work and own property in other member states without much hassle, whereas non-citizens of those countries, including those of us who "rule the world" usually have none of those privileges.

EU citizens can work in other EU member countries, but US citizens would get a much lower priority there, and I was told once that I could only stay for six months when I got into Holland in 2003. The maximum tourist visa I could ever get in most places was six months, period. In some places it was only two weeks. So much for ruling the world by me, a US citizen.

When a person becomes a US citizen through naturalization, he or she is asked to take an Oath of Renunciation stating something along the lines that the person now rejects all other countries and swears allegiance to the US only. The Oath is very solemn and is taken very seriously by the US law. However, these new American citizens, upon return to some of their former countries, soon discover that the oath is often not recognized there, as it is a "foreign" oath. If they had left their old countries without a proper exit visa, had not competed some military obligations, or had not paid some tax to the old government, they can now be liable before the local laws which take precedence over US laws. In simpler terms, US laws and your US citizenship may simply not be valid on the territory of those very much sovereign states. It is no fun sitting in a jail cell somewhere in a country whose citizen you thought you no longer were, wondering why you are here, when, as a US citizen, you are now supposed to be "ruling the world".

In case of the British citizens, especially those who have not been out of Britain much, and even those who have been abroad, quite a few may still be suffering from the "We Rule the World" delusion. True, Britain once controlled one fourth of the world and, about one fourth of the world( a bit less ,actually,) now belongs to the British Commonwealth. A British citizen, is often satisfied with traveling to, and working in English -speaking countries which is, admittedly, a big chunk of the world. However, just one quarter of the Earth covered by the former colonies of the Queen 'does not' the whole world make.

Many former imperial powers have a certain sphere of geo- political and -cultural influence which they exert on their former subjects. The British have the Commonwealth. The Russians have the CIS. The Spaniards have "La Hispanidad". If you watch the English-language news or movies, somehow, a great deal of feature films and news take place in the English-speaking world or where the US/UK are involved militarily. If you watch the French TV, or even the French Canadian TV, there are programs covering events in the Madagascar, Haiti, French Guiana as well as the news from the French-speaking Africa. That is the "La Francophonie", the French "chunk" of the world. Then, the Portuguese TV will show news from Brazil, Macau, Mozambique, and other Portuguese-speaking nations or areas. Portuguese tourists and travelers will also be drawn to other parts of the former empire because of their various cultural and linguistic similarities with Portugal. Spanish TV travels all around the Spanish-speaking world and the Russian TV shows their old empire with Latvians and Uzbeks speaking Russian on TV. If you watch the TV in all those nations all your life you will mistakenly assume: "everybody speaks Spanish, Russian, English, etc., and "we rule the world". Even the Serbian TV probably thinks that they rule a big chunk of the Serbo-Croatian-speaking "world". The Thai TV shows their old empire which used to be Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. "Al-Jazeera" features the Arab World as the center of everything and presents the Arab perspective on things and events as the natural and logical one. Living in such a culturally-linguistic TV bubble, one can understandably think that one's culture 's former imperial possessions do, in fact, cover the entire known world.

I have been aware of people, in many cases Britons, Americans or Australians in Thailand who were writing to the Bangkok Post complaining that, "How can it be that, the bus conductors in this city do not speak any English, how dare they not to?!" Some reportedly got furious with the local immigration officials screaming- “How come you cannot speak English? You need to learn English!” Never mind that Thailand had never been colonized and that it had its own little empire in Asia. I guess these foreigners in Thailand had been watching too many of the “We Rule the World"-variety movies and news on their cable TV.

The same often goes for some Spanish-speakers in the US- having grown up in Latin America many assume that Spanish is the world language. I remember a Honduran lady who came rushing to my place of work in LA carrying an electric bill and fuming- “How come it is not in Spanish?”. Many Spanish speakers in the US live there for many years without realizing that they now need to learn Englsih as Spanish is no longer the language of their world.

So, all these former empires are somewhat guilty of making their subjects believe that, somehow, their territories equal "the world" and that their citizens are involved in the ruling process of the same .

When getting ready to expatriate either for a short or a long time, one needs to do a thorough research on the countries one is going to, not be cavalier about the importance of cultural sensitivity when you travel and realize that one will be a guest there. One needs to prepare to behave as a guest would. If they speak another language there, please buy a phrase book and try to learn a little of the local tongues. If you stay long-term, make an even more serious effort to speak it. Do not ever think that they will respect you as the Ruler of the World. While in foreign lands, their governments and lawmakers will be your rulers and you will be their subject.

Staying humble, polite and patient, keeping a low profile, avoiding conflicts and being mindful of the local laws and culture will go a long way to preserve your well-being, your sanity and your safety there. To paraphrase the famous proverb , “When in Rome, do what Romans allow you to do”. And your trying to rule the world is probably not on their list of permitted behavior.

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