The music shocked her out of the infuriated self-righteous thoughts that she had drawn herself into since the morning. As a smile unconsciously reformed her face, the discord between her emotions and what was showing on her face made her self-aware. She was wallowing, and making her problems bigger than they were. She’s a white, American woman, able to be living in Europe, able to pay her rent and feed herself without worries. What was she doing brooding over how she was treated by the medical officer at the immigration office? Of all of the people in the waiting room at the regional office for immigration that day, she definitely had the least to complain about.
Bur her frustration and knitted brow when she walked into the train station were not just about the way the medical officer had spoken to her, or the fire alarm that went off and caused everyone in the office to wait outside in the late summer sun for an hour, nor was it about her own irritation with this immigration appointment being 3 months later than she had expected. No. Her problem was that she could not isolate herself and her personal frustrations from the other immigrants she had just shared the last 3 and a half hours of her life with.
She was naturally friendly, and had learned in adolescence that greeting strangers with a smile led to much more enjoyable life experiences than walking around with a puckered frown of indifference. She could not help talking to the mothers with small babies next to her in the office that morning, or the woman from Libya who asked her where she was from. And even with the women (for in the waiting room that day it was mostly women) to whom she did not speak, she felt some camaraderie, as they were all there for the same reason: to be allowed to live in this country, on this continent.
It had surprised her that the lung x-ray and medical check-up were obligatory, even months after her arrival in Europe. She had no problem with booking a train to go for the appointment, as she believed in following the rules of the government that hosted her, or at least following them as far as was reasonable. But that day, what surprised her even more was the behavior of the medical attendant who took the x-rays. A mousy and severe woman who tried to call the same young Korean twice for an x-ray because she could not recognize that she had already taken her x-ray 10 minutes prior (this was all the more remarkable because there were only 2 East Asian individuals in the entire waiting area.) Her complete disregard for the feelings of any of the individuals who she was attending to was at best worrying. When the Libyan woman realized that she was going to have to take off all of the clothes above her waist, she looked down at her elaborate dress and said, “I wish I had worn something more simple.” Perhaps it is a cultural difference, and nudity is nothing remarkable to this local medical officer, but it seemed to the young American that it made quite a difference when a doctor or nurse smiled at you and made a minimal effort to make you comfortable. Making you walk half naked across a room and preparing you for the x-ray without explanation but by pushing your bare breasts up against a plastic panel was definitely not making you comfortable.
The brutishness she witnessed in the perfunctory task of taking x-rays may have been forgivable in her eyes, had any of the rest of her observations demonstrated to her that the people in the immigration office had even the slightest regard for or understanding of the immigrants who had come to this office and were by and large nervous and confused.
It had not started well when just as they all entered the office for the appointed time of 13:30, an alarm went off in the building. The group of immigrants who were there for a visit only understood that they had to leave the building when all of the immigration staff started filing out. This led to waiting outside, immigration staff standing in one group and the immigrants standing in another. Not once was there an announcement by the staff about what was happening, why or what the group of immigrants, who had been told that their appointments were obligatory for their visas, should do. This was the beginning of her feeling of camaraderie with the African, Maghrebi and Asian individuals standing around her, this feeling that they were all being ignored, and that they would have to fend for themselves. When they finally were allowed back in the building, after the firefighters had come to confirm that nothing was wrong, tempers were short all around – staff and visitors. The problem with being an immigrant, she reflected as they marched back up the 3 flights of stairs, is that none of them had the luxury of even expressing their frustration with the situation. They needed what these immigration officers could give them, and with the slight chance that complaining might land them in a situation where they were not approved for their visas, they all kept silent. Some with forced smiles, some just staring at the floor.
There were several mothers with young babies in for appointments that day. One of whom had two children with her. She had come with a friend who seemed to be from the same West African country, or at least spoke the same language. When this woman was called into her appointment, she left her children with her friend in the waiting area. At some point the friend stepped away to get some water, and one of the immigration officers noticed the baby pram that she deemed “unattended” and caused quite a fuss by interrogating everyone in the office, asking if this was their baby. When she finally located the mother, who was in a private office being interviewed, she brought her the pram and said she should not leave her child alone. Watching as the mother nodded and took hold of the pram, the American was struck by a great sense of injustice. This was ridiculous! It had not even occurred to the immigration officer that in someone else’s cultural context, you can leave your child with a friend, or a friendly group of women because it is comfortable and safe for you. In fact, about 10 minutes later, another woman who needed to go in for an x-ray asked the American to hold her baby girl because she did not have a pram with her and the nurse did not offer an alternative for the child.
A feeling that she’d had many times before came over the young American, a feeling of the large gap left by the inability of so many people to empathize across culture, race, or religion. It made her so sad. And it was not that she expected that people be able to understand difference immediately, she knew that takes time, sometimes lots of time. It was that it seemed to her that it would take such a minimal effort to try and bridge the gap that was present in the immigration office that day. Things like explaining what is happening to someone who looks confused, offering to help someone with a child while they take an x-ray, saying hello to someone with a smile, instead of simply ignoring them and taking the paper in their hand. As a person who is handing over the paper, such behavior makes you feel about as important as that piece of paper. She reflected on how these barriers of difference were not limited to this immigration office; she saw it everywhere, from everyone.
As she stepped out of her interview, validated visa and passport in hand, she could not help feeling guilt at her own comparatively easy success and a growing anger at the situation when she waved goodbye to those left in the waiting area, suspecting that they might be there a while longer. It was these tumultuous thoughts that could be read on her face when she reached the train station for the journey home. When she heard the music, a soft and simple piano piece, she looked around to see that a piano had been placed in the middle of the train station, open for anyone to play. The music was coming from the fingers of a young man, who looked Arab and carried the obligatory book bag of a student. People walking to and from their trains were stopping to watch him and listen. Here she was, sharing this moment with him and with all of these different people travelling at rush hour through the busy train station. The young man finished his piece, and simply smiled, picked up his bag and walked away. Watching him walk away, the smile shared with the crowd around her, it occurred to her that for all of the problems and aggravations created by difference in this world she lived in, there were some really beautiful things that allowed her a glimpse at what overcoming that difference could be like.