Cultural Exchanges

The Elementary School my younger boys attend is very good at utilising parental knowledge, skills and experience.  It is a very good way of including parents and embedding the school’s connection to the community.  It is also a great way of extending the education of the students, building in extra little titbits and exposing them to things they may have had no awareness of.  As a genuine, bona fide immigrant with a very definite accent, the staff at the school have been making use of me since the kids were enrolled in the school.  This may or may not have something to do with the fact that several of the teachers are entirely obsessed with the ‘Outlander’ series of novels which are set in historic Scotland.

Having read one class a traditional Scottish Traveller’s tale – The Hedgehurst – last year, I extended their knowledge of Scottish literature still further by talking to them about Robert Burns recently.  I was visiting as part of a series on tradition exchanges so the focus of my talk was on Burns’ Night.  I told them about the speeches, toasts and recitations; gave them a brief overview of the languages of Scotland; provided a potted biography of Robert Burns; and I read them excerpts from ‘Address to a Haggis’ and ‘To A Mouse’ in Scots and then provided an English translation.  What most engaged the children, however, was the talk about the food.  They were disgusted yet completely fascinated by the ingredients of haggis.  I assured them that many people find haggis very scrumptious indeed, including the little Pict who is their classmate, but I don’t think anyone was convinced, not one bit.  What’s not to love about sheep’s pluck mixed up with oatmeal and spices and stuffed inside a sheep’s stomach?  When I told them that I had brought a sample of some Scottish food for them to try, their little eyes popped wide open in revulsion and horror.  I quelled their panic by informing them that I had in fact brought small pots of cranachan for them to try.  If you have never heard of it, cranachan is a delectable concoction of cream, raspberries, honey and oatmeal soaked in whisky.  For obvious reasons I had switched the whiskey for vanilla essence.  I think that went down better with the kids than samples of haggis would have done.  In the course of my talk, I had to explain that haggis is illegal in America which is why I could not even provide one for the class to see.  That led to a whole tangent about Mad Cow Disease.  They were captivated by it.  Perhaps next time I should go in and talk to them about my knowledge of diseases (genuinely, one of my nerdy interests is plague).

The following week I was again foisting Scottish victuals onto children.  One of my sons has been working on a unit about different countries of the world and he was assigned Egypt for his project (which led him to  – just for fun – write the story of Osiris from the point of view of Set all written according to the hieroglyphic alphabet).  As part of their studies, the class were having a multicultural feast.  Each student could contribute a food or drink from either their country of study or a country relevant to their own cultural heritage.  As tempted as he was by sticky date treats, my 9 year old decided he wanted to contribute something Scottish to the feast.  I wrote recently about my husband finding a source of British food so he was duly packed off to hunt and gather half a dozen bottles of Irn Bru.  The feast was a huge success and my son enjoyed trying all of the different foods and drinks, several not previously familiar to him.  I am extremely happy to report that the Irn Bru (a Scottish soft drink) was a massive hit with the students.  I am pleased to have had a hand in introducing their tastebuds to an unfamiliar and slightly bizarre flavour.

Those are formal cultural exchanges, of course.  I am, however, also responsible for an informal cultural exchange.  I have been volunteering in my youngest son’s Kindergarten class a few times a week in order to assist the children with learning to write.  This involves me sounding out words to help them figure out which combination of letters to write down to create each syllable and construct each word.  It took me a while to realise that this was leading them to write with a Scottish accent.  There is no emphasis on accurate spelling, just on familiarity with letters and combinations of letters to produce the phonetic sounds of the words.  Therefore, when I was reading their work back, scribing the correct spellings beneath their writing, I was reading in a Scottish accent and as such not noticing that the sounds were wrong for American English.  Their writing was riddled with my clipped vowel sounds and Es in place of As.  Oops.  Since that epiphany, I have been having to adopt an American accent when sounding out certain phonemes.  In return, the children have been helping me remember my American vocabulary and have been correcting me when it comes to my apparent insistence that Z is “zed”.  I am not quite there yet but gradually they will get it fixed in my head that in this country I need to say “zee”.

Very British Hunting and Gathering

Last week my husband arrived home bearing gifts.  While in search of a crop of pretzels to bring home, he had happened upon a store that had a shelf devoted to foods imported from Britain.  When he opened the shopping bag to reveal its contents, the children swarmed around him singing his praises, worshipping at the feet of the father who had hunted and gathered and brought home things they had not tasted in over a year.

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For those who are not familiar with it, Salad Cream is like a hybrid of mayonnaise and toxic waste.  As you may gather, I think it is vile.  Mr Pict and our two youngest children, however, are addicted to it.  Properly addicted.  This is unfortunate since, although it is manufactured by Heinz among others, it is not available in the US.  Luckily for them, however, guests from the UK can bring it with them.  That is the price of a visit to us.  They were relieved to discover, however, that they could now buy bottles of salad cream at this store in order to survive the gaps between salad cream bearing visitors.

The beans, it transpired, were not all that dissimilar from the vegetarian baked beans we have been eating since we emigrated.  Indeed, my children declared that they prefer the American version, probably because they contain a bit more sugar.

Custard powder is something I have been missing because, quite frankly, I suck at making custard from scratch.  Sweet scrambled eggs.  Custard powder saves me the aggravation of making it myself.  I do believe that a trifle is on the cards.

Jammy Dodgers are biscuits (as in cookies, not savoury scones) whereby a layer of super sticky jam is sandwiched between two layers of biscuit, the upper of which has a hole in it.  They are not remotely a special biscuit in Britain but it was a little taste of nostalgia.  The kids devoured them.

British chocolate is very different from American chocolate.  I cannot say that it is any worse or any better but my tastebuds have been bred to prefer the creamy smoothness of British chocolate.  I confess I do not especially like American chocolate as a result.  To prove this is not merely some sort of food patriotism, I will state that Belgian chocolate is by far and away my favourite.  We have all been missing British chocolate so those poor Bounty and Crunchie bars had a very limited lifespan.

Probably the item we were most excited to see, however, was the Irn Bru.  Whisky is the official national drink of Scotland but Irn Bru nips at its heels.  It is a bright orange soft drink promoted as being “made in Scotland from girders”.  It is vaguely fruity but tastes like nothing natural.  It is, however, entirely delicious and very addictive.  Nobody who has tasted it has ever disliked Irn Bru  – well nobody I know at least.  Although we never consumed soft drinks on a regular basis, my kids were dismayed to learn that Irn Bru was not at available in America.  They would look for it on restaurant menus and then remember that Irn Bru would never be an option.  Of all the treats Mr Pict brought back with him from his foraging expedition, the Irn Bru was the one they had missed the most and which they were most glad to see.  It is, however, almost as expensive as liquid amber so they had to do with sharing a small bottle between two and deal with the fact it would be a very occasional treat.  Indeed, we saved the Irn Bru for Burns’ Night – we think Robbie would have approved.

Now if only we could find a source of Bradan Rost salmon on these shores.

Home is Where the Heart is

This week’s Documented Life Project prompt was to incorporate a map of “your state or the world” and document something on that map.  Luckily, a few months ago, when doing my usual poking around in thrift stores, I had purchased a world atlas for 50 cents.  I, therefore, actually had the materials I needed.  Furthermore, I immediately had an idea of what I wanted to create, a little flash of an image skimming across my mind’s eye, which was a welcome contrast to the previous few weeks when I have been scratching my head for a bit.  I decided to use the map to document the fact I am “between belonging” right now as an immigrant, ensconced as I am as a resident of America but very much still feeling my Scottishness and connection to my homeland pulling on my heart strings.

I used a template to cut out two birds from two different maps: one of Pennsylvania, with the Philadelphia area being prominent around the bird’s head; and the other of Scotland, though actually it was of most of the British isles since that land mass was small enough in the atlas to fit.  I suppose that is appropriate since I have lived in three different locations in Scotland and have also lived in England for a while.  I chose the bird shape not just because I have become a tad obsessed with birds this past year but also because they represented migration.  I created the background using gelatos.  I have a love-hate relationship with gelatos: I love their creaminess and the rich vibrancy of the pigment but I cannot seem to get them to go onto the paper as smoothly as I have seen on tutorial videos.  Instead they still have a bit of a rough scribbly quality at places in the mark-making and I have to then deploy a faithful baby wipe in order to spread the colour across the page.  I used two shades of blue and a mid-green to represent the ocean between my places and the colours on the globe.  The green was used on a practical level to outline and thus highlight the shapes I was collaging onto the page.  I then added some strips of glittery green washi tape just because it supported the green outlining and because it was glittery.  I cut a love heart out of a map scrap which happened to contain the words “Atlantic Ocean” and then several smaller hearts out of US and UK postage stamps, again suggesting that idea of migration, travel, journey.  I also used two air mail stickers just because they chimed with the theme of the page and also it’s colour scheme.

Visually my page was communicating my sense of “not belonging”, of being between two locales.  I have yet to find my place here in America so I still feel rather discombobulated by how alien things are, by my difference and otherness, by all the little things I do not know, by how unfamiliar things are that I used to take for granted back home in Britain.  However, bizarrely and conversely, I do feel at home here.  I feel settled enough on a domestic, family level now – especially having bought a place to call home – that I do now feel at home here in Pennsylvania.  Ultimately that is because the cliche is a truism: home is where the heart is.  Ultimately I belong wherever my husband and kids are.  That, therefore, became the sentiment that I stamped across my page.

So my DLP art journal page this week is really about the push and pull of where I am at as an immigrant, as a wife and mother, as a Scot living as part of the diaspora in America; my page is about that tension between not belonging yet feeling at home.  Hopefully I have managed to convey that in the visual elements and the words on the page.

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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.

My First Blogiversary

A little musical tinkle on my phone just informed me that today is the first anniversary of my blog.  I had forgotten that I had started blogging so soon after my arrival in America so it came as quite a surprise.

Since I recently wrote a blog entry reflecting on my first year in America, I won’t rehash the same thought processes in this anniversary post.  I never imagined that so many people would pop by and visit my blog on a regular basis, that anyone would find what I wrote about settling into life in a new country interesting or engaging, so I am beyond thrilled to have regular readers.  When I started this blog, I never even contemplated having readers and I have to say that one of the best aspects of blogging turns out to be the dialogue I get into with the people who visit and comment or with the people whose blogs I visit.  It’s like having an online natter and it’s really enjoyable.

As my blogging year has progressed, my posts seem to have split into two different categories: writing about the personal experiences of myself and my family, sharing our travels and explorations, my grumbles, rants and achievements; and my creative endeavours and sharing my art work.  As such, I recently decided to launch a separate blog for my art work so that I could divide those two aspects of my writing more coherently, though I imagine there shall be some crossover for a bit.

Should you like to continue following my artistic pursuits, therefore, you can do so at Pict Ink.  I would be delighted to see you there.  Of course, I rather hope you will continue to stop by Pict in PA as well as Pict Ink.

Thank you, everyone, for reading and commenting and giving me the impetus to keep writing and sharing this past year.  It’s been a great deal of fun and I hope it will continue to be in this coming year and beyond.

A Year of Immigrant Life

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Today marks the first anniversary of the four children and I arriving in America.  A whole year already.  Really?  Didn’t I just get here?  How the heck did that happen?  So what have we accomplished in our first year as immigrants?

My biggest anxiety about practical, everyday life was driving.  Having spent my entire adult life driving on the left from a driving position on the right, switching to sitting on the left and driving on the right involved many changes of gear in spatial awareness.  Amazingly I have never once even momentarily thought about driving on the other side of the road but my parking is still questionable.  Not dreadful any longer, just questionable.  I passed my driving theory test by dint of common sense, generic driving experience, fluke and sheer luck since I had no idea applying for a provisional license meant taking the actual test.  And then I passed my practical driving test and was issued with a proper, bone fide US driver’s license.  By driving around a mall car park for five minutes after parallel parking.  My confidence is slowly growing with driving on major roads, the main cause of my anxious palpitations being that cars can exit a major road from either the left or the right and roads often split with little warning.  I don’t do spontaneity with driving.

Of course, having a US driving license then afforded me the ability to do lots of other things.  Like actually function.  Because in America, without that critical item of identification, you may as well be the Invisible Man because nobody is going to regard you as an actual person if you don’t have that bit of laminated card to prove it.  The loops and spirals of beauracratic Catch-22-ness I endured just trying to get my name on any documents without having a driving licence – including applying for the ruddy driving license itself – would have been farcical had it not been so stressful.  I still have zero credit history here so am still a non-person in that regard but I have a driving license so that’s progress.

In addition to having my driving license, I also have my Green Card.  So do three of my children.  We are still – a year into stepping foot on American soil – awaiting the Green Card for our oldest son.  I won’t rehash the series of epic failures by USCIS and USPS that led to this appalling situation because goodness knows I have ranted about it, possibly ad nauseam, in this blog so many times but it is tiresome and frustrating.  Endlessly, upsettingly frustrating.  The insistence on following predetermined routes through all the bureaucracy, the sheer inflexibility, the lack of application of any common sense, is actually pretty staggering.

One massive accomplishment is that we are now home owners again.  I thought I would experience more emotional turbulence over our house in Scotland selling but actually it malingered on the market for longer than we anticipated, thus becoming a stressful albatross around my neck, so I felt relief when it sold and I am happy that the family who bought it will forge many happy memories there as we did over ten years.  The sale of our house then enabled us to press forward with buying a house here.  Which we did.  Rapidly.  No time to let your heels cool in this particular housing market.  We are very happy with the house we chose, the whole buying process went pretty smoothly, and now we have a house to call home again.  I already feel at home here.  It feels like a good fit for us.  Now I get to transform the house and get it looking like it is ours, dragging it a little bit at least out of the 1970s.

I also now have all four boys in school.  After over eleven years of having at least one kid at home with me, that is a big deal.  They get to spend their days learning, developing, growing as people and I get to have a less frenzied day.  I get to experience (gasp) free time.  In that free time, I have been trying to get back into creating again as I had a lengthy period, when transitioning between countries, when I was not even drawing.  I have just completed my 40 day Drawing a Day challenge in order to build my creative stamina and blow the cobwebs off my drawing skills.  I have also taken up Art Journalling in this past year – something I did not know even existed until the beginning of 2014 – and that has led to me embarking on experiments in mixed media which I am enjoying far more than I anticipated.  My list of art projects I want to complete grows longer and longer every day.  Indeed, I have lists of lino block prints I want to carve, lists of ink drawings I want to do, lists of mixed media pieces I want to try, lists of art challenges to embark upon …. endless lists of creative things.  I just need to find the time.

Despite all these accomplishments, I am still not quite settled here.  Physically and environmentally I am settled here.  I never, ever, ever want to move again for a start.  I did a happy dance when I donated all my packing boxes to someone.  Seriously.  Right there on the street, I bust out some “I’m rid of the boxes” moves.  I also very much like the area we have landed up in – thank goodness because it was a pretty blind leap – and our new house is in a lovely neighbourhood.  But psychologically, emotionally, I am not yet settled here.  I am still very much aware of being an alien.  People very much struggle with my accent on the phone – though not quite so much in real life – and I can never quite reach for the American vocabulary in time.  My kids, on the other hand, are acing that challenge and have adapted their language beautifully.  Sometimes I even struggle to find the word I want in English let alone America-English.  And trousers are never going to be pants.  Never.

More than always being aware of my difference, my outsider status, however – which ultimately I don’t really mind because I’ve never been one for conformity anyway – is the unsettling realisation that over two decades of adult life has been reset to zero.  I have landed on these shores as a blank slate.  All my knowledge and experience of how life worked in Britain, how to do things, how the law worked, how healthcare worked, even grocery products for goodness sakes, has all been erased by my relocation to America.  I have to ask “daft” questions constantly because people assume I have a degree of knowledge I simply do not possess.  This is emphatically the case when trying to navigate the labyrinth that is the US healthcare system which seems designed to test and thwart people rather than support and treat them.  And all at a price.  I cannot even begin to convey how much I miss the NHS.  I could weep into my pillow over how much I miss the NHS.

However, our motivation for relocating has proven to be a solid basis for our decision and that makes it easier to endure and overcome the sustained levels of stress I have experienced at junctures in this past year.  We still believe we made the right decision.  There are more opportunities here for us as a family than we had where we lived before.  “Land of Opportunities”.  We have been able to take our kids to do things here that would have either been impossible back in Argyll or would have involved a stressful, expensive slog to a population centre.  There are museums and galleries and historic sites galore in this area.  There are state parks and there are national parks.  My oldest son has been to a local synagogue to hear a talk by a Holocaust survivor.  Heck, our school district even has its own planetarium.  We are also enjoying travelling and exploring.  Prior to our immigration, my oldest three sons had only ever been to one state (California) and the youngest had never even been to America before, or on an aeroplane, and now they have a whole continent laid out before them to explore.  In this past year, they have already “collected” a few states.  I, however, have only been revisiting states I had already collected so I need to start engineering some trips to states I have never been to (since I have an ambition to visit all 50 US states).  My husband is loving his new job and the children are thriving at school.  We are still very much in the throes of starting over but I think life could be very good here for us.

Just as well because I am never moving again.   Ever.  Have I emphasised that enough?

The Last First American Birthday

My second son turned nine today.  As we approach the first anniversary of our arrival in America, this means that his was the last in the family sequence of first American birthdays.  He had a strange birthday last year: his daddy was on the other side of the ocean, we were living with his grandparents and he was being homeschooled since we were between countries and curricula.  It was fun, as childhood birthdays are and being homeschooled he at least secured a day off school, but it was nevertheless a strange one.  This year, he has been bubbling with anticipation and excitement for months in the run up to the day itself.  Thankfully it appears to have lived up to expectations.  He loved all of his gifts, many of them geeky such as a crocheted Death Star and a gift card for our local comic book store.  He requested my homemade Kashmiri chicken curry for dinner and then dessert was an ice cream cake.  He has birthday plans for the weekend too as he wants to go on his shopping spree at the comic book store tomorrow and on Sunday we are taking him, along with his brothers and two of his friends to the cinema and a restaurant for dinner.

So that’s it: every member of the Pict family has had a birthday in America now; we have all had that milestone “first”.  That means, of course, that the next anniversary is imminent now.  In a few short weeks it will be a year since the children and I arrived in the USA.

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Referendum – My Nation Decides Without Me

I am sure it has not escaped your notice that something momentous is happening today in Scotland.  A Referendum is being held in which the populace is voting as to whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom (a No vote) or become an entirely independent nation (a Yes vote).  The Act of Union which bound Scotland to England took place in 1707 so this is an incredibly historic decision.  I am not going to get into all of the nuts and bolts of the debate here.  That is not the nature of this blog and, besides, other bloggers are probably better placed to analyse and present the arguments than I am because opinion pieces are not my personal style of writing.  No, I am writing about this now on my blog simply because it is an incredibly weird experience to be looking in from the outside on something happening within my country, to be so politically aware, and yet not be part of the process.

For months now my Facebook feed (the admittedly lazy means by which I keep in touch with friends and family on a regular basis) has been chockablock with discussion about the Referendum.  People have offered opinions and arguments, shared links to articles, video snippets from the campaigns and seeing how engaged everyone has been in political discourse has been a delight.  An astonishing 97% of the eligible population has signed up to the electoral register making this a record electorate.   Considering that in recent elections in Scotland the turn out has been woeful, abysmal even, the fact that a high turn out is being predicted (on top of the already huge number of postal votes), the fact that this Referendum campaign – for all that it has been a shambles on both sides at times – has lit a fire under people and inspired them to be active participants in the democratic process again is simply fantastic.  It is a massive decision.  It absolutely needs to be a democratic one and for democracy to function effectively every single voice ought to be heard.  People fought and died to earn us the right to vote and I am very glad to see people finally appreciating the fact that their vote is their voice.  I am also already proud of the fact that Scotland has seen fit to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds for the first time, something I have held to be just for a long time.

However, I do not get to be part of this historic Referendum.  Quite appropriately, residency is the qualification for voting, not nationality.  As a Scot who is no longer resident in Scotland, I do not get to vote.  Indeed, I no longer get to vote anywhere.  I am effectively voiceless, though filled with political opinions.  Watching this whole campaign unfold from afar has been a stark reminder that I am now part of the diaspora.  It is a bizarre feeling, somewhat unsettling since I am also now outside the democratic process generally.  There was a period in my life when I was deeply involved in Scottish politics (never more so than during the Devolution campaign) and now I am not involved at all when Scotland is in the process of making the biggest political decision ever placed before it.  It’s weird.

I await the result on tenterhooks and meanwhile The Proclaimer’s song ‘Letter from America’ is playing on repeat in my head.

Mr Pict’s American Anniversary

Today marks exactly one year since Mr Pict crossed the ocean and arrived in America.  Of course, it has not been the same culture shock it has been for the kids and I, since he is half-American and spent his teens in the suburbs of Washington DC.  However, he has gone from residing in extended stay accommodation to owning a house within that year, has settled really well into and is thoroughly enjoying his new job, and has generally worked really hard to make the transition easier for the kids and me.  He has really accomplished masses within just one year.  He wanted to return to America to live and, somewhat against the odds, he made it happen.  I think he’s had a pretty good first year.

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.