Friday, 22 July 2011

In Search of Life in the UK



After twenty-six months of island living, the UK Border Agency, arbiter of imported and deported peoples, makes imported spouses succumb to an entrance exam in order to secure their permanent residency, or “indefinite leave to remain” as they call it. It's called the “Life in the UK” test, and it's used to vet both those who want to become citizens, as well as people like me who just want to hang out on a long-term basis. I was hoping it wasn't like the driving test, and there would be far fewer questions involving sheep.
I reported to my nearest bookstore and found the Official Life in the UK Study Guide, published by the Stationery Office. I read its introductory paragraphs, which crowed that since its introduction in 2007, it had quickly become a national bestseller. I found this claim a bit insincere, in that any foriegner wishing to remain on the island was forced to purchase this book. Maybe my judgement was hasty. Perhaps the government had hired Jeffrey Archer to sex it up a bit, and the book was actually worth reading on its own merits.

Alas, the benefit of my doubt was unwarranted. I had no idea what to expect. I guessed that the test might focus on purely governmental questions, like defining a constitutional democracy and perhaps some pithy factoids like the date the Magna Carta was signed. I saw a few questions on the Church of England, which I also thought were fair game thanks to the clue in the title.

I did not expect, however, the assorted general knowledge questions that may also appear on my electronically generated test. At first I was relieved that the answer to many multiple choice questions on consumer help appeared to be “Consult your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau.” I worked for this entity, and was very familiar with the types of things they helped the population with. However, the test answers suggested people consult Citizens Advice if they were having difficulty finding a dentist. I did not know we provided this service, but I did know of the government's general propensity to use Citizens Advice as a dumping ground for the disgruntled people they didn't have the time, staff, or inclination to help.

The test would be multiple choice and a bit of true false. As I dug deeper into the study guide, it was evident that I would have to digest and cough up statistics on the population of Wales, geography, various countries' patron saints and their feast days and the ethnic demographics of the greater London area if I wanted to pass. I prayed for questions about what profession took care of sick pets and the address of the Prime Minister's house London.  All my English friends heard me read out questions asking for how many members were in Scottish Parliament, and shook their heads with the comment, "God.  I don't think I could pass that test."  I asked them to rephrase in supportive tones.

I was also hoping the words to “God Save the Queen” would not be on the test, as I had never taken the time to learn them. I know the melody. The Americans have ripped it off and renamed it “My Country, 'Tis of Thee.” The only part of the English version I knew was where the word “queen” appeared. I overcompensated here. When it was necessary to sing along, I mouthed along as best I could. My version usually went something like, “Blah, blah, blah, blah-blah, Queen; Blah, blah, blah, blah-blah, Queen; Queen, queen, queen, queen!”

Thankfully, neither that tune or the enigma of a song “Jerusalem” appeared. Since my island arrival, I've read numerous times that the general British population feels “Jerusalem” should be the national anthem. I knew it to be in heavy rotation at various national events, weddings, and football matches. Once, I thought I had seen the glimmer of a tear forming in the corner of Chumley's eye upon its playing.

Frankly, I didn't get it. It was a William Blake poem set to music, that described the green fields of England as the new Jerusalem. The lyric also floated the possibility that Jesus visited England at some point in his life, with most probable spot for his visit Glastonbury. Despite giving the song a chance and not hating its melody, I found its lyrical suggestions completely nuts. Everybody knows Glastonbury is a dairy farm that got famous for hosting the craziest musical festival on the island. It has a lesser stone circle than Stonehenge, but I could hardly see it as any sort of tourist attraction for Palestinians of modest means. If the lyrics are true, the subtext would be the dissapointment Jesus felt about travelling so far for just a few big rocks, artistically arranged. It's also doubtful he would have enjoyed the spectacle of some crazy English people wading through mud to listen to a week's worth of cutting-edge pipe and drum acts nearly two millenia before the invention of Wellies. I think Blake got a bit too jiggy with the opium pipe as he put quill to parchment on this one.

Relieved I would not be asked to recite or interpret either of these anthems, I was caught out by one seemingly simple question that had to do with the UK film rating system. I remember going with Chumley to a modest theater complex. I overheard one of the ushers mention “12a.” I had been to see movies there on a number of occasions before, but never remembered that the theaters were labelled by letter into subtheaters. “Wow. This theater is way bigger than I thought,” I remarked to Chumley, who couldn't understand what I was talking about as usual. I walked past theater 12, but 12a was nowhere to be found. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught an advertising display that read its film was rated 12a, meaning children under the age of 12 must be accompanied by an adult. I pretended that I was looking for the ladies loo, and followed Chumley into the correct auditorium. I have found that feigning a search for something reasonable is a far superior method of dealing with my profoundly stupid blunders than actually owning up to my thought patterns.

As is my habit, I felt the need to assure myself that failing the Life in the UK test would not be an option. I took eighteen practice exams, which took me back to the day before my driving test when I plotted all thirty-one possible test routes on my Peterborough A-Z map. There were twenty-four questions. I could miss six and still pass. I occasionally bungled the Muslim demographic statistics, but felt I could live with the risk that no more than six questions would concern Muslims.

I presented to the test centre, just in time to pay an extra fifteen pounds thanks to someone at UKBA picking up the clue phone and learning that in an age of austerity, prospective immigrants were sitting ducks for further fees on all manner of “services,” including this exam. Ten were scheduled in my group, but only three of us were native English speakers. I saw an Asian man take the chair beside me in the waiting room, firmly gripping his “Life in the UK” study guide in Mandarin. This did not bode well for him, I reasoned to myself, in that unless I had seriously misjudged all the test instructions, the exam would be in English. A flustered-looking Asian girl flew in five minutes before the exam start time, only to presumably learn from Mr. Mandarin that the powers that be would not let her sit the exam unless she paid for it first. She flew out of the room again, and was back looking slightly relieved and bearing what looked like a receipt. It occurred to me that the content of their conversation could be completely different, as I was not a Mandarin speaker. He could have equally told her there was a sale on peaches at Aldi, for all I knew.

Several more non-natives sauntered in at fifteen minutes past start time, and amazingly, the envigilator let them in. I was amused by the term “envigilator,” as it conjured up images of upright citizens running around airports and asking passengers who packed their bags. My mood had migrated into offcially peeved, as I had gotten up extra early and been daunted in finding the test venue's top-secret public car park. Despite the late-comers' countries of origin, clocks translated the world over.

We learned that each of us ten had to be individually ushered into the test room and registered on the UKBA's website by our envigilator. The young woman who registered me was closely supervised by an older woman perched on her shoulder like a geriatric parrot, squawking directions obvious to all but her. We came to the field on the webpage form that asked for my place of birth.

“Springfield, Illinois,” I stated, congratulating myself on staring strong by answering a question I knew.

The woman looked hessitant. I was about ready to start spelling Illinois when she cut in.

“How about I just put in 'Springfield?'”

I shot her my most citrus of looks. “That won't really help much. There are 52 different cities named Springfield in the United States. At least 35 states have one.” Clearly, she didn't really leave the Fens much.

“Oh. Then why don't I just put Illinois?” she parried.

Did this test facility pay a premium per keystrike? I sighed.

“Ah. Now you've narrowed it down to about thirteen million people.”

She gazed back at me with the reception of a snowy television console. Clarification was in order.

“Look, I've filled out enough of these forms before,” I went on, disgusted by the display of administrative laziness. “They want the city and state. That's how Americans identify locations.” I looked to her parrot for help, but she was distracted helping a woman who had never seen a computer mouse before.

“What? You've taken this test before?” she crowed, loud enough for anyone who spoke the English language to swivel their heads and stare at me as the flunkie she and the rest of the room now thought I was. My original point was floating somewhere above her head.

“No! I mean I've filled out enough UK Border Agency forms in my time to know they're going to want the city and state.”

She huffed in half apology, and picked up my passport to enter the passport number into another field.

“Now I need you to verify the information I've typed in is correct,” she recited off a flashcard in her mind. I craned over the computer screen and reached for my passport in her hand. I grasped it, but she pulled it away. “No! I can't let you have that back.”

Incredulous, but shortly thereafter blinded by white rage, I began to feel the surges of adrenaline hit my bloodstream and my pulse pound into my ears. I couldn't use the nearest blunt object, a very sturdy English-manufactured steel hole punch, to bludgeon her about the head and neck because I needed the pass certificate she very unfortunately had the power to generate for me. Funny how simultaneous access to the control and P keys can go directly to some people's heads.

Thankfully, her geriatric parrot rejoined the greivous bodily harm charge in the making and stepped in. “You need to give this woman her passport back right now,” she instructed in a tone that left no room for deviation. “She doesn't know her passport number off the top of her head. No one does!” The correction could have only been made better by the addition of “You Fool!” in Mr. T tones. Her parrot apologetically whispered, “It's her first day.” My trainee sheepishly handed it over, and I retrieved it from her grabby hand with a satisfying snap. Surprisingly, she had gotten everything correct.

I pitied the fool, said no more, and took my place next to a young man in the corner. He looked not quite as disgusted, but willing to count the lint balls under his mouse to pass the time. He was from New Zealand, and we gleefully dished on how absurd this entire test mandate was to those of us who spoke English as a first language.

I felt better and began the test. I was done in five minutes, thinking there was a fair chance I had missed one. I looked around to see everyone else beavering away, and wanting to avoid obvious hubris, I checked my answers to quell the pangs of guilt. At ten minutes, I could take no more and declared myself finished. Instead of being able to leave, I was forced to loiter on the premises for a grand total of three hours. I took the coveted piece of paper stating I had passed, resisting the urge to fold it into a pirate hat to match the eyepatch my envigilator will undoubtedly be precribed once another aggrieved foreigner puts out her eye. They had better get rid of that paper punch.