Wishing America were better. . .but it’s not

In 2005, I left the U.S. for what would be seven years of working overseas – in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.  I left partly to escape my own misery in a job I didn’t like in Washington, D.C., and partly to see if the rest of the world were somehow better than the U.S.  Let us just say that I was constantly disappointed.  My friend Osvaldo rightly laughs at me and my naiveté.  How could you possibly think somewhere is better, or that the U.S. itself is better? he once asked me.  I don’t know.  I guess it was hope. 

I wanted to write this post because I know I’ve come down hard on Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States.  I wanted to say that in alarming ways, the U.S. is a lot like the Kingdom.  Clearly, we don’t treat our new immigrant workers much better.  I know I know you will argue that many of them are illegal, but to me that isn’t a justification for denying them basic human rights – the right to health care and education, for example. 

In a recent report from the New York Times, two reporters followed Interstate 35 from the border with Mexico to Duluth, Minnesota (where my parents grew up, incidentally).  In their last article, they asked people from all over what it means to be American.  One man, Antonio H. Hernandez, originally from Mexico but now living in Missouri, said, “People say this is a land of opportunity, but a lot of the time there are no opportunities, no jobs.  And if you are an immigrant, you don’t get paid as much, and if you go to the hospital, sometimes they won’t take care of you.  An American with papers has more opportunities than an American without.” 

Sounds like Saudi Arabia, doesn’t it??  It all comes down to those precious papers.  I was recently at a doctor’s appointment, and they asked me for my I.D. – a driver’s license.  For a doctor’s appointment, for Christ sake!!!  Just like the iqama in Saudi Arabia, you can’t do shit without I.D. here. 

In another recent article about homelessness in Honolulu, a homeless man named Ronnie Cruz, told of how a police officer took his I.D. away from him many years ago.  Now he can’t go back to where he came from, even if he had the money.  In fact, he can hardly do anything without it.  You need I.D. to get a job in this country, after all. 

So Saudi Arabia in many ways is an awful place, but for many people here in the U.S., it is equally awful.  And a lot of that has to do with “papers”, the almighty I.D. 

As much as I want it to be, America isn’t a better place.  It’s just home.

N.Y.U., Abu Dhabi, and the Rights of Workers

ImageImage

I’ve been following this story in the New York Times for the last month.  The photo above is of Bangladeshi workers in their Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) apartment.  Thousands of these workers have been doing constructing the New York University Abu Dhabi campus, and, according to the New York Times, living in horrendous conditions and enduring patently unfair labor practices.  The men above, for example, were provided an apartment as part of their contract – 40 people living in 400 square feet of space, and sharing two bathrooms.  Moreover, the workers were promised a certain salary back in their home countries, but when they arrived in the UAE, were paid considerably less.  Workers who went on strike to protest these and other infractions were beaten, jailed, and deported.  Most workers had their passports taken from them, so they weren’t free to leave had they wanted to. 

I should be clear here – N.Y.U. wasn’t the direct employer of these construction workers.  But they hired the contractors who were.  Because of the Times report, N.Y.U. has hired yet another contractor to investigate the claims.  This will prove difficult, because the campus is finished, and many of the men working there have gone back to their countries of origin or have dispersed to other work sites. 

I am glad for the report from the Times and I’m glad N.Y.U. is taking it seriously.  It’s just too bad it took them so long.  It’s too bad that large universities can easily hire contractors, especially contractors in the Gulf States that typically have no scruples where workers rights are concerned (more on this soon), and totally divest themselves of responsibility.  These far away companies become like no-see-ums – pesky, but ultimately easily ignored. 

This subject has become near and dear to my heart, principally because I spent a year working in Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf States (such as the UAE) have an employment system for foreign workers called kafala.  This system requires that all foreign workers have a native sponsor.  I was sponsored by the college I worked for.  Domestic workers (and there are millions of them) such as maids and drivers are sponsored by individual citizens.  I presume the South Asian workers at the Abu Dhabi campus were sponsored by one of the Emirates contract companies.  What is the problem with these sponsorship systems?  Well, there are several egregious problems.  For example, when I worked in Saudi Arabia I eventually received an iqama, a residence permit, through my sponsor.  Without an iqama in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you can’t do shit – can’t board a domestic flight, can’t conduct banking business, can’t stay in a hotel – the list goes on.  But here’s another thing – the sponsor takes away your passport in exchange for the iqama, and you can’t leave the country without an exit visa from that sponsor (and your passport, obviously).  Ideally, the sponsor returns your passport and gives you the exit visa when you badly need a vacation or are leaving the job all together.  Ideally.  In reality, this is not what happens.  In reality, many many employers take their workers passports and never give them their iqama.  Or, when they want to leave, will not provide the exit visa either, so they are stuck in the country.  The system is rife with abuse.  It is tantamount to slavery.  Imagine if you’re in a dispute with your employer (and I knew several cases like this).  The employer has total control of the situation – they can have you deported right away, or, worse still, they can force you to work indefinitely.  All with low pay, which is probably less than they promised in the first place. 

(I write about this a lot in my as yet unpublished memoir, My Heart is a Wilderness, about the year I spent in Saudi Arabia.)

After seeing this in Saudi Arabia, it sickens me that a prestigious American university has played a part in such a system.  Clearly it was not enough that N.Y.U. had a Statement of Labor Values.  Why the hell should an employment company out of the UAE care about that?  And this raises a big question – when doing business overseas where the U.S. has no jurisdiction, what can you do about unfair labor practices?  Probably you need some serious clout – and tactful diplomacy – to get to a monarch or other head of state so that they can put pressure on the employment company.  I think N.Y.U. is doing that now, but doing it too late. 

I don’t want to say that N.Y.U. has no business having a campus in Abu Dhabi.  I know that is the direction that education is going – globalizing it to financially support institutions at home.  Did I hear that N.Y.U. had promised the construction workers that their children could attend the university for free?  I don’t think I’m making that up.  A nice gesture, but good luck in finding the workers. 

In my next post, I will probably talk about unfair labor issues in the U.S.  You’re not off the hook on this, America. 

 

“My sweetheart is more to me than a coined hemisphere.”

untitled

This is a quote from the great Victorian author Anthony Trollope, and it is also where I got my blog title from.  But what the hell does it mean?  It may be Trollope at his most nonsensical.  It may have some deep meaning.  It may be that I will never know.  Still, I like it.  I looked up the word “coined”, because I think I know what a hemisphere is, but I thought “coined” might have some obscure meaning I wasn’t aware of.  Google, as usual, is a fount of information.

Coincoined past tense – 1. make (coins) by stamping metal.  2.  invent or devise (a new word or phrase).

Did Trollope mean his sweetheart is more to him than a place full of money?  Did he mean that his sweetheart is more to him than a newly named place?

Google got more interesting, as I went down the entries.  Dictionary.com was piquant:

coin

noun  

5.

Archaic. a corner cupboard of the 18th century.
verb

11.

British Informal. to counterfeit, especially to make counterfeit money.
Surely Trollope wasn’t talking about a cupboard??  I like the British informal verb – to counterfeit.  As if a hemisphere were false, a fake.
Dictionary.com also tells me that “coined” originated in 1304, with a meaning of “cornerstone, wedge”.  It was an architectural term to begin with.  I like that, too.  A hemisphere with a corner.  Or a hemisphere wedged between others.
Cambridge Dictionaries Online simply say the verb is to “invent”.  I like the notion of an invented hemisphere, an invented place.  A blog is certainly that.
I doubt Trollope consulted the Urban Dictionary online, but for your edification I can tell you that according to them, “coined” can mean 1. to describe a personal gain of someone else  2. A Super Mario Brothers reference when Mario jumps up and hits the boxes to get coins.  3. To beat someone at something; or
To ram into them or hit them;  4.To have sex doggy style, each thrust is a coin
You see the possibilities are endless.
So I’ve come up with my own interpretation, for the purposes of this blog.  I think I’ve decided that “My sweetheart is more to me than a coined hemisphere,” means that something precious is more than a so-called place.  A coined hemisphere is merely a construct, something we’ve made up.  That it exists is only due to our imagination.  A coined hemisphere is something we’ve given a name to, but it’s almost too much to wrap your head around
I feel that way about the world a lot of the time.
So in this blog I will write about our world, particularly the themes that appear in my memoir, My Heart is a Wilderness.  Some of those themes include travel, education, sex and sexuality,  the concept of home and belonging, labor and labor rights, mental illness and its challenges, and  possibly a wide assortment of other things.  When you’re looking at a “coined hemisphere”, it’s hard to limit yourself!
I’m also happy to hear from you!  What do you think a “coined hemisphere” means?