Small Differences: Dentistry

There are two stereotypes about teeth that we all know: Americans have big, wide mouthed smiles; British people have wonky teeth.  Studies show that there is no real difference in oral health and hygiene between Britain and America but the perception of vastly different aesthetics remains.

I have lived in America for almost four years now and still every time I visit the dentist for a check up I imagine the dentist recoiling in horror when I open my mouth and reveal my ever so British teeth.  Truth be told, my teeth are pretty skew-whiff even by British standards – perfectly healthy but very crowded and crooked.  Compared to my American peers, however, they are a complete and utter mess.  The first time the dental nurse at our American practice looked in my mouth, she asked me if I was British or Russian.  It was that obvious that my mouth was not tended to by American dentists.  I never felt self-conscious about my teeth back home in Scotland but here in America I most definitely do.  Cosmetically pristine teeth are clearly valued here and mine don’t pass muster.  I may have made it to the age of 41 and have only one filling but that doesn’t mitigate against the visual mayhem of my mouth.

I think the key to the different dental experiences may be in a different approach between the two cultures.  I cannot compare US dentistry to private dental care in the UK because I have never been to a private dentist.  For the five years when I malingered on the waiting list of an National Health Service dentist, I never had an oral emergency that compelled me to seek out a dentist and pay private fees for the privilege.  Throughout my childhood and all but those five years of my adulthood in Britain, I was treated on the NHS.  This means my dental treatment was heavily subsidised (great for the budget) but it also means that the appointments were pretty perfunctory.  In contrast, my US appointments last for an interminable amount of time even though all I am having is a check up and routine cleaning.  The hygienist actually performs the bulk of the treatment.  This involves lots of ponderous poking and prodding and then a professional cleaning that lasts so long I have to stave off panic attacks.  Only after that marathon is completed does the dentist appear to look over any xrays and give my gob a final, brief once over.

Every single time I go to my check up, either the hygienist or the dentist – and sometimes both – will comment on the overcrowding in my mouth.  It is as if they find it grimly fascinating to contemplate the abyss that is my British mouth.  My teeth are not straight, they overlap, and my lower wisdom teeth came in at right angles to my other molars (though to be fair my UK dentists always found that weird too).  Even the dental hygienist, an expert flosser, has occasionally trapped a piece of floss between my teeth because there is so little space between them.  When I first moved here, the inevitable follow up question was whether I had ever considered orthodontistry.  You can probably imagine their looks of surprise when I tell them that I had a mouth full of metal for almost six of my teenage years.  I don’t think they can comprehend that the mangled mouth they see wide open before them actually represents an improvement on what was there before.  I decline each time the subject is raised.  I have lived with my wonky teeth for enough decades now that I can just accept that this is how they are.  I have endured braces for enough years of my life and don’t need a redux.  Besides, I have to shell out a whole heap of dollars on my kids’ orthodontisty.

Sadly, yes, at least two of my children have inherited my British mouth.  Apparently I have a tiny jaw, especially the mandible, and I have transmitted that “defect” to two of my offspring.  My 10 year old is already in braces because, aside from the crowding, he also had a dramatic crossbite, and my youngest will start orthodontic treatment as soon as he has a couple more adult teeth.  In addition to all of the metal and wire work in his mouth, it has been mentioned that my 10 year old may need to have some teeth pulled to create space and will need a palate expander.  That aspect of the treatment diverges from my experience of having orthodontisry in 1980s and early ’90s Scotland.  I had no teeth pulled and certainly didn’t have my palate expanded which, therefore, means that no extra space was ever created in my apparently minuscule jaw for the relocated teeth to move into.  So, while the six years worth of metalwork pulled everything into line, as soon as all of those devices were removed, my teeth simply began to drift back – especially once my wisdom teeth came in when I was in my mid-20s.

Even with very good dental insurance, the out of pocket cost for the orthodontistry is a major expense.  Multiplied by two kids, that expense becomes eye wateringly winceable.  They need the treatment for physical reasons, not just cosmetic ones, but I also think it is important to their self-esteem that they have winning smiles that fit in here rather than having my experience of people looking quizzically at teeth that look like collapsed tombstones in a long abandoned cemetery.  I am, therefore, going to stick with my awfully British teeth so that my children’s mouths can evolve to become more American.

American Passports

Under the Child Citizenship Act, our four sons- as the children of a US citizen and permanently residing in America – became US citizens when we emigrated here in October 2013.  However, in order to make that officially part of the record and make it concrete and provable, we had the option of either applying for a Certificate of Citizenship or a US passport.  We thought the passports were a better option so that was what we decided to do.

We filled in the forms and took them to the Post Office for checking and processing.  Just as in Britain, there is a fee attached for this service but it is a more sound and secure way to submit a passport application so is well worth the money.  We could not, however, get the Post Office person handling the paperworks to appreciate that the applications were being submitted under the Child Citizenship Act rather than by standard birth-right.  We talked it through with him several times and he got the idea on some level but not that there was a requirement for additional supporting evidence regarding the boys’ residency qualification.  Finally my husband insisted that he enclose at least copies of their Green Cards and other such documentation with the applications.

We were not surprised, therefore, when a month later four identical envelopes appeared in my mail box all bearing the same message from the US Department of State: we needed to submit a whole bundle of supporting evidence within 90 days or else all four applications would be void.  This was so supremely frustrating that it made me want to primal scream.  It was also far too reminiscent of the beauracratic tangles and annoyance of the Green Card saga.  A phone call to the relevant section of the State Department confirmed how to handle having only one original copy of our Marriage Certificate to split between four applications and that we only had to send all the boys’ Green Cards to evidence the residency qualification.  All of which could have been done at the Post Office.  We essentially paid the PO’s handling fee just so they would get the applications from A to B and nothing more.

Thankfully – unlike the debacle with my oldest son’s Social Security card and Green Card – this was the only glitch in the bureaucratic path and a few days ago four envelopes appeared in the mailbox, each containing a US passport.  Of course, there is still an opportunity for a stuff up as there always is – they have not yet returned our marriage certificate or the Green Cards – but for now it looks like the passport saga is at an end.  Our sons are now, after two years of living here, officially dual nationals and will be legally recognised as American citizens.  I am now the only Pict family member who remains un-American.  This Presidential election, however, increases my frustration at not being permitted to vote so I may have to make my own citizenship my next big bureaucratic project.


The Green Card Saga Concludes

If you have been following my blog since its inception a year ago, you will know that my year has been liberally peppered with stress over my oldest son’s missing Green Card.  It has been a long, drawn-out, sorry story of shambolic bureaucracy, acute ineptitude, willful inflexibility, an extortionate additional fee and a day of school missed so that my son could attend a biometrics appointment despite technically being a US citizen and definitely being under 14.  And lots of waiting.  Lots and lots of waiting.  But finally the waiting is at an end.  My son’s Green Card arrived in Friday’s post.  We could scarcely believe it.  Finally, over a year since we first pitched up in America, all five of us British Picts have our Green Cards.

Now we can progress with applying for the boys’ US passports.  I can hardly wait to find out what bureaucratic nightmares that holds in store for us.

Change of Address Cynicism

As a parcel of immigrants, one of the things the children and I have to do is notify USCIS of any change of address.  They need to track our whereabouts.  Mr Pict also has to notify them of a change of address because he is our sponsor.  They need to know where to find him should any of we immigrants turn out to be reprobates.  Therefore, one of the first things I had to do upon moving house was to notify USCIS, via their website, of our address changes.  One per person.  Tedious but necessary.  With print outs as evidence.

Here’s the thing though: the last time we notified USCIS of a change of address, they entirely ignored it, despite apparently and allegedly updating their records, and sent our documentation to the old address anyway – which was, at that point, an unoccupied, flood-damaged apartment.  That total cock-up was then compounded by the fact that the Postal Service who should have been redirecting all of our mail from that address to our actual address failed to forward the documentation pertaining to our oldest son.  He, therefore, ended up with no Social Security Number and – when it happened again – no Green Card.  We have now been legal permanent residents in America for eleven months and yet still my oldest son has not received his Green Card.  This was seriously frustrating but it became downright infuriating when USCIS, having admitted fault, then made us pay to have his Green Card reissued and required that our son attend a biometrics appointment.  Ridiculous.   And that was five months ago and STILL we have not received his Green Card.  The Green Card we have now paid for twice.

You will, therefore, understand my cynicism and degree of anxiety surrounding the likelihood of the Green Card making it to us given that we have changed address and have set up mail redirection again.  There is only so much incompetence one can dismiss as a small glitch or a temporary blip.  When it happens over and over, it does smack of incompetence.  I would, of course, be delighted if my cynicism this time was proved to be without foundation.  I will no doubt perform an epically embarrassing happy dance should the missing Green Card make it to us without further ado, drama, stressful hassle or – gulp – expense.  If, for once, all the bureaucracy that seems intent on thwarting our son’s possession of a Green Card actually synthesises into something that functions adequately enough to deliver that document then I will hold my hands up and admit that I was wrong to be so sceptical.

This time.

Becoming Mom

My sons finished the school year on Tuesday morning.  It is hard to believe that school is over already as the time seems time seems to have passed so quickly – even eliminating the fact they started the school year in Scotland and had a period of being homeschooled in England before we actually emigrated.  They each came home with so much paperwork from school that they really would have had to hire sherpas if we didn’t currently live next door to the school.  Overwhelmed, I piled it all up on a table and let it intimidate me for a day before I started delving into it, determining what should be added to their memory boxes and what should be recycled.

This whole business of sorting the wheat from the chaff should have taken me less time than it did simply because I found a lot of their work quite diverting.  Among my eight year old’s rainforest of paper there was an alphabetic writing prompt.  For every letter of the alphabet, there was a question (with a tied-in key word) that invited him to develop a pithy, personal piece of writing.  C was for collection and he was asked to share what he would collect if he could collect anything at all.  My eight year old duly answered that he would collect glass human eyes because they are cool and different and “because my mom has always wanted to collect glass eyes”.  So very weird but also very sweet and thoughtful.  My seven year old wants to collect animals bones. I love my little weirdos.

But I digress.  The point of this anecdote is that in several more examples I was referred to as “mom” and not as “mum”.  I have written before about how I feel about what this exchange in vowels means to my identity but to see it on page after page really drove the point home.  In order to make himself understood by his peers, in order to fit in conversationally and abide by American spelling conventions, even the most non-conformist – diligently, defiantly, determinedly non-conformist – of my sons has capitulated to conforming.  Out of curiosity, I then quickly skim read writing by all of my other sons too.  All of them were referring to me as “mom” in their written work.

I accept it and I understand it and, therefore, I support it but by jings it feels very odd indeed.  It feels weird enough reading it but if they start actually calling me “mom” then that will feel even more alien.  It’s only been eight months and my children are being Americanised.  Little transatlantic Pod People.

The Green Card Saga Rumbles On. And On.

When my husband took our oldest son to the Biometrics appointment, we thought we were at least mercifully close to the conclusion of the stressful saga that has been obtaining his Green Card.  But no.  No, no, no.  This appears to be an epic tale of woe without conclusion.  Mr Pict was told that the replacement card would be delivered in two or perhaps three weeks from the date of the appointment.  He double-checked that USCIS had everything they needed (you know, like sucking us dry of funds, making us deal with the brunt of their own incompetence since it was they who lost the Green Card in the first place) and was assured (too cynical to be reassured though) that they did indeed have everything required to issue the replacement card and that they would do so in a timely manner.

Two weeks passed and no Green Card arrived our mail box.  Three weeks and still there was nothing.  Then we got to a month and thought the time had come to chase them up.  I have to admit I was already starting to feel volcanic ire at the thought they might have dispatched it to the wrong address.  Again.

Instead, when Mr Pict phoned up USCIS to find out where the Green Card was, he was not-so-politely informed that he should never have been told it would be issued that quickly.  That issuing a replacement would take six months.  Six.  Whole.  Months.  As in half a year.  As in over a year from when my son first entered the country.  Ridiculous, no?  He was told that USCIS are still working on processing Green Card approvals from August 2013.  The kids and I were all approved in August 2013.  The rest of us got our Green Cards in January.  How on earth can they still be processing Green Cards from August when we are now almost in June?

We are, therefore, going to have to find some other means of proving our oldest son’s status as a resident in America so that we can progress with things like applying for US passports.  That will be a whole lot more bureaucracy.  And no doubt more ineptitude, mess and stress.

One day this saga has to end after all.  Doesn’t it?

Blasted Biometrics

In bringing my blog up to date with all of our travels and some of the more relevant excerpts from my art journal pages, I got so caught up in the happy, positive stuff that I completely forgot to write an update on our ongoing tussle with USCIS over our oldest son’s Green Card.

I won’t bore my readers by rehashing the whole abysmal saga again but suffice to say we were already reaching the limits of mental exhaustion with USCIS’s attitude towards the missing Green Card when, lo and behold, a letter arrived into our mailbox informing us that our son was legally obliged to attend an appointment at the nearest office in order to have his biometrics taken.  Tolerance threshold breached.

I had to undergo the whole biometrics thing in order to enter the US as a permanent resident but our four children did not because they were and still are under the age of 14.  But suddenly, because USCIS sent out the Green Cards to the wrong postal address and because one of those envelopes was subsequently lost, they felt it was important to put our oldest son through the biometrics process.  The date in the later was a fortnight hence and on a weekday afternoon which meant missing an afternoon of school and my husband having to take an afternoon off work in order to take our son to the appointment – as I had to be home for the other three children.

The appointment was last Friday at 2pm.  Husband and son set off in the car with all the paperwork and documentation required.  At 1.45pm, my husband texted me to say that the whole operation was complete and they were heading home.  When they arrived at the office, they found a massive but empty room filled with chairs for a couple of hundred people but occupied by just a hand full.  There were more people manning the desks than there were people to process.  Consequently, they were taken early for the appointment.  My husband was required to fill out documents that fundamentally replicated all of the paperwork USCIS already had in their possession and that my husband had taken with him to the appointment.  Form-filling for the merry heck of it, in other words.  The biometrics bit of the appointment was so swift it was a blink and miss affair.

My husband enquired about the procedure for applying for a refund – given that we have now paid TWICE for our child to be issued with a Green Card and that the loss of the original card was due to a fault on USCIS’s part.  He was informed that there was no procedure for that and that this was the sole procedure for obtaining a replacement for a lost card.  No negotiations, no deviations, no exceptions.  We are not talking about small change here either.  We are left feeling as if we have been hustled.

I am now so pessimistic and cynical about the bureaucracy of USCIS that I am steeling myself for the next glitch in the process.  Perhaps they will send the Green Card out to a different random address this time and we can pay yet more money and attend yet more appointments, forever stuck in an endless loop of ineffectiveness.  But perhaps the Green Card will finally reach us and we can begin the process of applying for American passports for our four sons, thus effectively and officially putting their immigrant status behind them. 

And that will probably be a whole other bureaucratic mess for us to look forward to.

The Green Card Saga Continues

Almost exactly a month ago I wrote about a stressful bureaucratic mess regarding the difficulties we were having in getting USCIS to issue a replacement Green Card for our oldest son.  The email version of locking horns was getting us precisely nowhere so we decided to send off the required form with the requested extortionate fee but with a cover letter outlining our position and politely requesting that, with USCIS having admitted culpability, they not process the cheque.  It was the longest of long shots but they had us over a barrel and we needed the Green Card.

So we were not surprised but were still disappointed when a few days ago we got a letter from USCIS telling us that they were processing our request and had taken the fee.  I felt an odd balance of being enraged and resigned at the same time.  What is even more infuriating is that they informed us they might require our oldest son to attend an appointment to have his biometrics taken.  Since all of our children are under 14, this was not a requirement for their immigration.  The children were issued with visas and Green Cards without biometrics.  I am perplexed, therefore, as to why they have now decided that he needs to undergo this.  He will no doubt have to miss a day of school – perhaps all the kids will if the location of the appointment is too far away – and we will incur additional expenses and fees.  Yet the lack of a Green Card is entirely the fault of USCIS.

Lest we forget, my children are actually now technically and legally US Citizens.  Now that they and their USC parent are resident in America, they have that status.  We just have to formalise it by applying for passports for each of the boys.  So we are going through this ordeal to secure our oldest’s Permanent Resident status even though legally he now has the right to be here as a US citizen.

If we have to jump through any more flaming hoops to obtain his Green Card I will be spitting feathers.

Martin Luther King Day

Yesterday was my first ever Martin Luther King Day, which is a fairly recent addition to the calendar of holidays, as I have never visited America at this time of year before.  I am not going to blog about the legacy of Dr King or his importance to American and world history because that is not the nature of this blog.  Suffice to say, however, that he and people like him are inspirational.  That then is the essence of Martin Luther King Day.  It is about taking that inspiration and those lessons of doing something to make your community better and using your time, skills and resources to make a difference.  Of course, this is not necessarily bound in the context of the Civil Rights movement but is interpreted more widely so that it has become a day for volunteering.  I have volunteered in different capacities and at different levels of dedication since my teenage years so the concept of this holiday appealed to me.

For our day of service, the kids and I headed to the Elementary School they attend as the school’s counsellor had organised a range of volunteering activities.  We could do things as varied as bag up breakfast items, write letters to service men and women, sort out donated coats or weed the school’s grounds.  In the end, given the spread of ages of my children, we decided to go and organise, clean and box up donated toys.  The kids did a great job of getting stuck in and helping out and as a whole group we powered through the task in no time at all.  I was especially pleased when m 8 year old told me how much he enjoyed the feeling of doing something to help others.

I really like this holiday and perhaps next year we will be in a position to get even more involved in volunteering in our community, perhaps even engaging longer term in a project if we can manage the logistics.

As an aside, on the way home my four year old asked me if what we had just done was “musketeering”.  Cute.

Girl Scout Cookies

We participated in an American tradition for the first time on Sunday: we bought Girl Scout Cookies.

This was a fundraising activity we were only aware of through TV programmes and movies (mainly ‘Monster House’) but we had heard the legends that these were the best cookies in the universe.  Those Girl Scouts know how to market themselves, that’s for sure.  So when two little girls who live at the other  end of our street popped by proffering cookies we had to say yes.  We are always happy to contribute to good causes anyway but we were also eager to try these baked goods of legend.  We bought caramel and peanut butter varieties on the spot and ordered another batch of peanut butter and thin mints.



So far the boys have only sampled the peanut butter cookies but they met with their seal of approval.