When you move country to live somewhere, you arrive with a blank slate. But then for practicality's sake you must collect the things you need to live, which end up serving as souvenirs of your new life.
I have started thinking that my collection of souvenirs here is almost complete.
Do you recall the part in Office Space where Jennifer Aniston's character (a waitress) complains to her boss about having to wear too much flair, little badges that she has to collect and pin ridiculously on to her uniform?
Yeah, three years (almost) now after I emigrated, my American flair display is pretty happening.
I had to work harder for the early souvenirs. I signed up for a Bank of America account in Grass Valley, California. It was laborious, but simple enough. My first piece of flair was a shiny American debit card (the word "EFTPOS" here is foreigner's talk). It felt good to get.
Three years later I know now that Bank of America is the worst company on Earth. It has this security service it likes to laud, which has only ever cancelled my card when I was on the other side of the world, locked me out of my accounts randomly and frozen my money when I tried to spend too much at once.
For my follow-up I wanted a phone, the second bit of proof past a bank account that you are a real citizen of a certain place. AT&T wanted a $500 deposit from me before I could get a contract. I scrunched my nose up at that, big time. Subsequently, I had to go with Verizon and team up with LP on a family plan.
It took a couple of hours, but I found my way to a shiny new Blackberry with an American number. The Blackberry lasted a year before I traded up (it sucked) and the number used to be owned by some guy named Steve. I got a lot of calls in the coming months from people looking for Steve. I still do, on occasion. A girl who was sweet on him kept texting me one day. I wondered whether Steve was popular or wanted. Maybe both?
When I got to Boston I acquired a Social Security number, which was a pain in the behind. I had to get forms signed by my on-campus employer and the international students' office and wait in line in one of those archetypically frayed and grim government offices, where the lines are long and the human spirit never flows freely. I left the office card in hand and had the feeling that I was on the grid.
LP and I did an IKEA run, which isn't strictly American, but it filled our American apartment full of furniture I wouldn't have been able to get at home. We got a Netflix account, so we could engage in the streamlined, efficient American joy of receiving movies in the mail and watching them online. I taught myself how to use the subway system in Boston and began toting vats of Starbucks coffee on my way to early classes.
Within a few months, I'd collected enough American badges to get by for a time and it plateaued there. I had the requisite souvenirs to suggest the outline of an American life, but I was still effectively a tourist.
By the time I moved to the Bay Area, where I knew I'd be for good, I now had an American wife (not really a souvenir, but something that made me more local) and we went about looking for big game souvenirs, to round out the set.
I started paying too much money for too little coverage with my health insurance. This souvenir cut me, which I was told was a common, American type of pain.
We bought a car; a white Toyota Prius that we named Al. Having a car was a big step. Car insurance was a lot more painless, too.
There was pressure in owning Al: it was my largest American purchase. I couldn't just cut and run back to New Zealand - I had a wife and a car here now.
In April 2013 we moved to Oakland and LP and I bought a couch that we don't intend to throw away when we move from here, whenever that will be.
On Friday I bought a Costco membership, which allows me the distinctly American pleasure of buying anything I want in obscene quantities at huge discounts.
One of these days I'll conquer laziness and get my Californian Driver Licence (ergh, too many tests) and a credit card (ergh, too complicated).
All that'll be left to do after that is buy land and become a citizen (January 2016!).
Then, I guess, I will be a real American.
I'm almost there. But the funny thing about running through all of this was thinking about how the American part of me, the souvenirs, is always going to feel like a costume I'm wearing to fit in.
In my wallet I have my KiwiBank card next to my Bank of America card; I refer to them as my bank account and my American bank account, respectively.
Everything in New Zealand is second nature. But here in he US, I still find myself spacing out at the strange formatting of my American phone number.
I have these souvenirs, but I'm always a step removed from them, you know?
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