With being a serial immigrant comes a little bit of perspective regarding various countries’ immigration policies, and of the people whose job it is to handle immigrants, foreigners and aliens.
After moving to Japan in 1991, it didn’t take long for me to realise that one of the best places to see institutional racism on display was at the local nyukoku-kanrikyoku, the immigration office, where officious little men with even more than the typical Japanese distrust of foreigners would abuse elderly Asian immigrants who spoke little Japanese but could understand from tone of voice that they were being insulted even before their children could translate for them. I went for my annual visa renewals, and for my re-entry permits, armed with a good book and a thick skin, knowing that I’d usually have to wait up to a couple of hours before my couple of minutes of condescension.
I assumed, fool that, clearly, I was, that when I moved to the United States in 2001, things would be more palatable. An hour-long wait in the August sun outside Tampa’s immigration office soon disabused me of that notion; once my turn had come for an X-raying and a search of my belongings, I was allowed inside to sit and wait for nearly three hours before a guard came round checking that everyone had the correct forms of payment. I showed him my cheque; he told me that only money orders were acceptable. I showed him the bit on the INS paperwork that said how cheques should be made payable to the INS; he told me that “we don’t take cheques at this office.” So off I went to get a money order, and came back the next day for another hour’s queuing up outside before I could show that I was safe enough to be granted admission, and for another few hours’ sitting on a hard, low-backed plastic chair. I was told it would take 18 months to process my green-card application; I finally became a legal, but deeply unimpressed, permanent resident in 2005.
So when I started working on my application to bring myself and The Girls to New Zealand, I was fully braced for another draining of my will to live, another process of humiliation and insult. And I was, wonder of wonders, quite wonderfully wrong. Instead of the Japanese attitude of “Fine, you can stay, but don’t think we actually like having you here,” or the American “What makes you think you deserve to live here?” it was quite incredibly refreshing to have a very clear, very real sense that New Zealand actually wanted us to come, actually wanted us to move to NZ and become part of the country, the community.
Our application for residency was handled by a real person, Maxine, who was quite willing to work with me, quite prepared to answer questions when I had them, actually to speak to me and treat me decently — not too much, one wouldn’t have thought, to expect from a fellow human being, but apparently nobody every thought to mention this idea to Maxine’s counterparts in Takasaki or Tampa. My application for American residence — and this, mark you, while I was already living in the US, and married to an American — took nearly five years. My application for New Zealand residence took less than five months. In fact, it took less than three. There was, from the beginning, a very real sense that this country actually wanted us, and was delighted that we wanted to come.
So when Maxine wrote to me in June of 2009 to tell me that we had been approved, we were, not entirely unreasonably, quite thrilled. We had full, permanent residence privileges in our new country, and we were pleased. From the first, we have had all the privileges that come with residence, including access to health care and the right to vote, on the same basis as native Kiwis. There was, however, one very small but important detail that we had to bear in mind. Our residence visas were single-entry visas; in order to leave New Zealand, and then return without our resident status lapsing, we needed returning resident visas. The good people at Immigration New Zealand kindly supplied two-year RRVs for all three of us with our residence visas, but they were good only for two years, at the end of which we would be renewing them.
It wasn’t going to be a problem, of course. We met the criteria for indefinite RRVs — I had a job, we owned a house — and it was just a question of filling in paperwork and paying an application fee. But which forms to complete? I tried rooting around the Immigration New Zealand website, but to little avail — I was looking for information about returning resident visas, but found details of permanent resident visas. In the end, steeling myself, I took The Girls to the immigration office on Queen Street in Auckland.
Expecting the worst, we entered the office; the experience was quite disorienting. There was carpet on the floor, there were flags and decorations marking the Rugby World Cup (this was back in September) hanging from every available surface, there was light and bright colours. Oddly, there was no queue at the counter. We approached, and the lady behind the counter actually smiled. Very confusing. I explained what we wanted, why were there, and why I hadn’t simply printed off forms from their website. Very kindly, very clearly and without even a glimmer of sarcasm or patronising, she explained that the system had recently been overhauled, with the old distinction between visas, issued outside the country, and permits, issued onshore, done away with. She handed me the correct forms, told us where to go to get photos taken, and sent us on our way.
Forms completed and photos snapped, we went back. The same lady (I was surprised; I was sure that, if her boss had overheard her being nice to a customer, she’d have been summarily fired) checked our papers and told us that we were in the queue to speak to an officer. Here we go, I thought, in the queue — should have brought a sleeping bag and pillow. But we sat — in, it should be said, decently comfortable chairs — for barely fifteen minutes before our names showed up on the computer screen on the wall.
We handed our papers to a young lady, herself, it appeared, an immigrant, who looked them over, asked a couple of cursory questions, took payment from us and then printed out our new permanent resident visas.
That was it. That was all it took. No screaming (by her or by us), no racism, no nasty, snarky comments, no sense that we had a hell of a nerve asking to be admitted to God’s Own Earth. We spent more time talking to her about who she’d drawn in the office sweepstakes for the Rugby than we did dealing with the business of the day.
So now we’re permanent. We can stay here, and come and go, as we see fit. And in a couple more years we can apply for New Zealand citizenship, a path I fully expect us to go down. We do feel like we belong here. When we were watching the All Blacks dismantling the Japanese defence in the early stages of the Rugby World Cup, having seen England barely manage to pull off a little-deserved win against Argentina, Debbie remarked to our neighbour, David, that she was thinking that she should switch her allegiance to the All Blacks. “Can I be an honorary Kiwi?” she asked. “You live here, don’t you?” replied David. “This is your home, isn’t it? Then you’re as much a Kiwi as I am.”