Miscommunication Between Cultures, Part 3

Hopefully Vladimir doesn’t kill me for posting this story.  Sorry, Vladimir!

Noel and I met Vladimir on a penpal service.  He was a Russian guy moving to New Zealand to be with a Kiwi guy he’d met on the same penpal service; they felt they had a lot in common and they’d get along fine.

When we’d met Vladimir and his Kiwi boyfriend after the boyfriend had picked Vladimir up at Christchurch International Airport, Noel and I had a strong feeling that it wasn’t going to last.  Here was the Kiwi boyfriend: checkered flannel shirt, work jeans, down-on-the-farm boots; and Vladimir: leather pants, flamenco dancing shoes, black dress shirt buttoned to the bottom of the pectorals, red bandana tied around his head.  The Russian guy from urban Moscow, the Kiwi guy from rural Otago in New Zealand.

In short: different as chalk and cheese.

I said to Vladimir, in private, that if things didn’t work out, he always had a place to stay with us.  Having moved to another country, I knew what it was like, and I wanted him to know he had options if things didn’t work out.

A few weeks later, he called on the phone, crying, to say it wasn’t working out.

So, Vladimir moved to Christchurch and lived in our spare room.  (This is all a story in itself that I’ll cover another time.)

Liquor

One day, Noel, Vladimir, and I went to the liquor store to get some booze.  When we walked in, we could tell someone had dropped a bottle or three of something sweet smelling because it hung in the air.

Noel went off on a mission to find whatever he was looking for, and Vladimir whipped out a small book, looked something up, then proudly announced: “It smells like crotch in here!”

I looked at him funny and probably said, “What?!?”  Then: “I think you have the wrong word.”

“No, no.  Crotch.  It smells like crotch in here!”

“I think you should look that word up again in your book.”

Vladimir got more adamant as the five other people in the store were staring at him.  He pointed at the book.  “Crotch.  It smells like crotch in here!”

I snatched the book out of his hands, trying to flip open the book, but half of it was in Russian so I had no idea what I was looking for.  “Find the word again and show me.”

He started to flip through the book, turning a page over, turning another page, and then, running his finger down the lines on the page he’d been on before, he found the word.  He smiled, but the smile faded into a frown.

“What word did you mean?”

“Oh.  Cranberry.  I meant it smells like cranberry in here…”

“That makes more sense.”  I felt all the eyes in the shop veer back away from us.  We resumed shopping.

“What’s a crotch?”  The question came out of the blue.

“Uh, I think we’ll talk about that on the way home…”

Miscommunication Between Cultures, Part 2

Hopefully Yves doesn’t kill me for posting this story.  Sorry, Yves!

When I was studying at Northern Illinois University, we used to make supply runs to the local Jewel grocery store.  Of course, this necessitated us having a car, so when someone with a car presented themselves, to Jewel we could a-go.

One day, my friend Yves (originally from Switzerland) and I were wandering through Jewel, dodging the local old ladies who seemed to always be there, haphazardly pushing their shopping carts around with three items in them.  It was kinda like running into the middle of a bumper car ring, hoping you wouldn’t get hit… more than 20 times.

Suddenly, Yves remembered something and started to walk faster.  I tried to keep up.  “What’s the matter?” I called out after him.

“I remember something I need…”  Dodging old ladies, he dashed down one aisle, only to emerge as I got there.

“What?”

He frantically went to the next aisle and looked down it.  “Stuff… You know.  Stuff.  To douche with.”

I kinda cocked my head and said, “Um, I don’t think that’s the word you’re looking for.”

“Yes, it’s right.  Stuff to douche with!” He was getting more agitated as he looked for the aisle.

“I think, just maybe, you’re talking about soap…?”

Bars of Soap

“Yeah.  Soap to douche with!”  That time was a bit too loud, because a little old lady and her cart collided with an end-cap.

“Ah, here it is!” His voice sound relieved, although he had a look of concern as he looked over at the group of little old ladies and a shop assistant trying to clean up the spilled contents of the end cap.

Yves was going through the soap to see which brand he wanted, cheerfully inserting the word “douche” into every sentence he could when another old lady passed him and gave him a scolding look.

Our following conversation went a bit like this:

“Uh, I think we need to stop using that word.”

“Which word?”

“Douche,” I hissed under my breath.

“Why?  It means, you know, to clean your body.”  Using a voice everyone within 3 feet can hear…

“Not in American English it doesn’t!”

Yves looked puzzled, like Data trying to comprehend something not programmed into his experience on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  He found the brand he was looking for and placed it in the cart or basket (I can’t remember which).  “Oh.  So what does douche mean in English?”  Still in the normal voice.

Quiet conspiracy voice: “It’s a female thing.”

Normal voice: “What kind of female thing?”

“I’ll tell you in the car on the way home.  I’m not discussing this in Jewel!”

Always Pay Attention… Especially If You’re Driving a Dump Truck with the Dumper Up!

Today, we had this happen outside work on Antigua Street:

Dump truck has brought the power lines down...

Dump truck brought down power lines

The dump truck was trying to unload its load, and, while it was driving forward to do this, the top of the dumper struck the powerlines hanging across the road, pulling the top of the power pole on our side of the street off.  You can see it hanging down by the pole in the centre of the picture.

Thank God, no one was injured.  The driver and construction workers are all okay.

Lesson learned: Always pay attention to your surroundings!

Miscommunication Between Cultures, Part 1

I was tired.  And jetlagged.  But I was desperately trying to stay awake.

I’d only arrived in New Zealand the day before, and Noel and I were going to the supermarket to pick up some groceries.

Getting out the car, Noel said to me, “Is there anything you want from the supermarket?”

The sun was too bright, so I squinted back as I shut my door.  “Sure.  I wouldn’t mind some Carefree.”

He looked at me strangely.  “What?”

“Carefree.  You know, to chew on.”

His expression turned even more puzzled.  “Uh…”

I thought something was super-weird with his reaction, so I fished around in my jeans pocket until I found the pack.  Out came the pack of chewing gum.

Carefree chewing gum
Carefree chewing gum

I showed him the pack, and he started to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“In New Zealand, Carefree are panty-liners!”

Carefree panty-liners
Carefree panty-liners

I Don’t Want to Get Civil-Unionised; I Want to Get Married!

Gay marriage cake decorationsIn New Zealand, like in Illinois, gay and lesbian couples can have their relationships legally recognised in civil unions.  In both jurisdictions, civil unions only offer some (not all) of the legal protections and rights a marriage would bring.

I refuse to get a civil union.

To me, the rights a civil union bestows on Noel and my relationship makes it a second-tier, second-class relationship.  It’s as if the Government is saying, “We’ll try to placate you with most of the rights, but not all of the rights, of a straight, married couple.”

Sorry.  I won’t put up with it.

If either Noel or I had any more spare energy (you know, after trying to rebuild the school after the quakes and [still] fighting Government bureaucracy), we would help the fight for marriage equality in New Zealand.  In another way, I feel we did our bit by helping with immigration reform for gay and lesbian couples in New Zealand.

As I type this, both the New Zealand Parliament and Illinois lawmakers are considering legalising gay marriage, which is a huge step in the right direction.

There will be those who argue against gay marriage, trying to tie it to their religious beliefs, but what it comes down to is that the Government (which is not linked to any specific religion) is there to protect the rights of all its citizens and ensure they are treated fairly in the eyes of the law, not in the eyes of the Christian God, or the Hindu Gods, or whatever Gods you may or may not believe in.

And while we’re at the argument of religion, no one religion owns marriage.  They do not get to claim a monopoly on it.  Marriage pre-dates some religions, which shows it has always been more of an act of civilisation no matter what the dominant religion in the region than a religious act alone.

The cartoon above speaks about the “sanctity of marriage”.  If it’s so holy, why do those spouting off that it is a religious rite alone allow people like Kim Kardashian and Brittany Spears to make a mockery of it?

As humans understand more and more about themselves, we have come to accept scientifically that LGBT people are naturally that way, just like the rest of the animal kingdom has LGBT animals in it.  If two male ducks can mate for life, and none of their fellow ducks seem to have a problem with it, why can’t two human men in love with one another and have that relationship recognised legally by human society?

This struggle for gay marriage is about giving Noel and me the same legal protections, reassurances, and opportunities for my life and my future as those my straight brothers and his straight brother and straight sister have.  We pay our fair share of taxes; we should have our fair share of rights.

Several state and federal governments around the world are starting to realise this and are now starting to afford our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters around the world the right to marry.

I urge New Zealand and Illinois to join those ranks next.

The Battle for LGBT Equality in New Zealand Immigration

When I arrived in New Zealand, gays and lesbians who had a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident as a partner could gain permanent residency through a relationship visa.  This would have probably been the only way I could gain New Zealand permanent residency under the system as it was then.

There was quite a flaw in the system though, as gays and lesbians were treated differently under New Zealand Immigration’s rules.  Back in 1996, or even 1998 when I applied, the rules (created in 1988) were as follows:

Straight Married Straight De Facto Gay De Facto
When the non-NZer could apply for Permanent Residency Immediately 18 months together 24 months together
Wait for Permanent Residency Approval None 6 months 24 months
Total time Nearly instantaneous 2 years 4 years

Obviously, this was not fair.  How could Immigration determine that a gay relationship was at any more risk than a straight married one?  Why was there such a cool-down period for gay couples?  The difference of 2 years between de facto couples, totally dependent on their sexual orientation, was astounding.

Noel and I didn’t feel this was fair or right.  So we did what many LGBT people have done before us to secure what legal rights we did have; we fought.

The LGBT media (and, to some extent, the mainstream media) were extremely supportive with our fight against the New Zealand Government.  No one seemed to be able to answer why there were different categories based on sexual orientation, but the underlying current seemed to be the assumption that gay and lesbian couples were less likely to be stable or stay together than straight couples, so more stringent criteria were needed for gay and lesbian couples.

Remember, boys and girls, that to “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

Noel and I became sorta “poster-boys” for this campaign, especially when another couple involved felt they had been fighting too long and needed to get on with their lives; they sadly left New Zealand and the fight for equal rights behind.  One of the examples I could find was the 15 May 1997 edition of Express newspaper, of which the main story is about immigration rights in New Zealand.  The main tidbit read:

Christchurch couple Noel Turner and Scott Fack met on the internet nearly three years ago.  Fack, an American, wants permanent residency to stay with his partner in New Zealand.  He says the four-year requirement does put strain on the future of a relationship, making it difficult to plan ahead.

Openly-gay Labour MP Tim Barnett and his colleague Annette King helped with the fight.  Noel kinda pushed me to be the liaison with all these people: media, other couples, Tim (the latter of which made it difficult for me because I couldn’t always understand what Tim was saying with his British accent…).

It was difficult for me personally because, as a gay American who wanted to become a New Zealand permanent resident, I had to basically put my life on hold for 4 whole years.  I had to pick a visa and stick with it for 2 years.

If Noel had been a woman, by the time the first 2 years had passed, I’d be a permanent resident.  It made no sense.

Then Immigration minister Max Bradford repeatedly stated that changing the law to allow gay and lesbian couples the same rights under the law as straight de facto couples was too difficult and would need numerous changes all over the place to work.  He was skipping like a broken record: “Too hard.  Too hard.  Too hard.”  The tune was getting repetitively boring.  In the end, I think we kinda backed off because all we kept hearing was the same thing; it was very apparent the old buffoon wasn’t going to budge.

(In all my dealings with Bradford, he reminded me of an old goat, or even worse, a stubborn German.  I’m a stubborn German, so I know one when I see one.  He just. Was not. Going to. Budge. One bit!)

The problem with the marriage-certificate-gets-permanent-residency-immediately route was that, technically, people could marry and fool Immigration into thinking they were a legitimate couple.  The non-New Zealand would become a permanent resident, the two would live as a couple for a while, and then the now permanent resident could easily site problems in their relationship for the reason he / she was leaving.

Of course, LGBT couples didn’t have the right to marry.

We moved on with our life, trying to live as normally as we could.  We applied for permanent residency under the system in 1998.  It would mean I would have to wait until 2000 to know whether or not I could stay in New Zealand.  (It’s very hard living years of your life in limbo, not sure if you’re going to be able to put roots down or not.)

Bradford was replaced, eventually, and the new Minister of Immigration, Tuariki Delamere, took power.  Thank God for the LGBT media, because they revived the story and brought it to Delamere’s attention.  Delamere pretty much turned around and said, “I don’t know what the big deal over this is”, and, after a discussion with Cabinet, he announced the change to the policy on 22 December 1998.

The policy was changed to the following:

Straight Married Straight De Facto Gay De Facto
When the non-NZer could apply for Permanent Residency 18 months together
Wait for Permanent Residency Approval 6 months
Total time 2 years

I’m not sure when we heard about the policy change but it wasn’t implemented until 29 March 1999.  I do remember that we found out that all existing applications were technically considered under the old 4 year policy, and since I’d applied around February 1998, mine fell into that same category.

Back to the Minister of Immigration we went, with the full support of the LGBT media.

Again, Delamere waived his seemingly magic wand — it must’ve been a magic wand because his predecessor said this all couldn’t be done easily — and told Immigration to have those couples whose applications were under the old scheme to reapply, charge free.  Technically, the old application was cancelled and the new one was made under the new rules.  Smart thinking, that!  See?  It wasn’t that difficult, Mr. Bradford!

Immigration called us into their Christchurch city offices around this time, where we met with a lovely Immigration officer named Trish, to fill out the new application form and have a final interview.  Since we were well past the 24 month / 2 year stage of our relationship (Noel and I at nearly 38 months / 3 years, 2 months at this point), and we’d gone well beyond the 6 month waiting period, Immigration wanted to get our application done in one fell swoop.

An embarrassing confession: Trish asked us a question, and Noel started to answer it, but he had his facts all wrong.  I interfered to tell him the correct facts, and then we had a wee bit of a domestic in front of Trish.  A big smile crept across her face as she returned to her paperwork, and she told us she’d seen enough; only real couples bicker like that!  Amazing that such a funny little incident proved to Immigration that we were a genuine couple.

Thursday, 8 April 1999.  My birthday.  The post arrived, and I rushed out to the mailbox to get it.  There’s a letter in there from Immigration New Zealand.  With Noel beside me, I took a deep breath and tore it open.  We read the letter together.  My permanent residency had been approved; I started crying as Noel hugged me.

We’d won.  We’d won our fight to make things equal for LGBT couples where one non-New Zealander wanted to gain residency through their New Zealander partner.

Noel was taking me to Wellington for the weekend for my birthday.  It was a great birthday, and we had a wonderful time, knowing that our relationship was safe and my roots could be planted here in New Zealand now.

By Wednesday, 13 April 1999, my passport had the New Zealand permanent residency visa and permit in it.

Now, 17 years into our relationship, we’ve proven to the New Zealand Government that their choice to give equal rights to LGBT couples was the right one.  And, as always, I am extremely thankful for the help that the LGBT media gave us, especially Express newspaper and Queer Nation TV show, especially Andrew Whiteside, and to MP Tim Barnett and other MPs who supported us.  Of course, a huge thank you to then-Minister Tuariki Delamere for doing what was right by New Zealand and the LGBT community.

Moving Forward with My Life: After the Quakes

This week, with the second anniversary of the devastating 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquake yesterday, I’ll be blogging about several issues relevant to our situation here in Christchurch and natural disasters in general.

Yesterday was a mixed-bag of emotions for me.

Work was proving to be a bit difficult to concentrate on, and, while I did do a bit of it, right after the clock hit 12:51 PM, I decided I needed to do a few things for me.

Read Moving Forward with My Life: After the Quakes