“Missing the Humor and the Smells” story transcript
Eileen LeValley: Okay, this is for my “Immigrating to Michigan Across Time” project complex multimedia package with Eileen, Jake, and Jada. And I’m interviewing John Chisholm, and he’s gonna tell us his journey to immigrating to Michigan.
So, John, if you could tell me the country and the year you immigrated to Michigan, and just the process that you went through, like the paperwork.
John Chisholm: Okay. Well, how I ended up coming to Michigan, really, was like… I was in export sales, and a company here in Detroit often was starting up a new sort of automotive aftermarket company, and they – it was a business I was in – so they offered me a job. I gave a six-month notice on my company in the U.K. So, it was six months before I could even come across.
ELV: What year was that?
JC: This was 1979 in the U.K.
ELV: And what part of England?
JC: I came from the… that time I was actually living quite close to London, and I had a house, and I wasn’t married, so I had to sell the house, and you know, come to Michigan. I didn’t really think all that – didn’t really think all that much, and I was young and I thought, “What’s the problem?”
And so, then I came out on – I don’t know what kind of visa I was on – but I had to go through this process of applying for a green card. And so every, literally every sort of, I don’t know, two or three months, I had to go back to the U.K. and then come in again, and go back again, and come in again. Unfortunately, they hired an attorney who really didn’t know much about immigration. He was a sort of corporate attorney. But anyway, so I went through this process of – a very complicated process – called “advanced parole,” which meant that, once I was at a certain stage to leave the country, I had to go through a very complex paperwork type of process. And – which was actually quite amusing ’cause, when I arrived at the Detroit airport, it would take the paperwork so long to get from Detroit airport to my immigration officer, that they gave me a separate copy to put in the mail directly to him, otherwise, I couldn’t leave again cause there was nothing to say that I’d come back.
Anyway, you know, then I went through the usual process of interviews and medicals, and eventually got a green card. I, at that time, I was working in Troy and I rented an apartment in Sterling Heights, which is where I met Kathy, and then I, with the money I made from selling my house in the U.K., I put a, you know, I [unintelligible] a mortgage on a house I still live in today in Clawson.
ELV: I’m sorry, what year was that?
ELV: 1979. And then, what problems as far as paperwork did you have? In other words, do you think the paperwork process today in 2019 is harder or easier than it was back in 1979?
JC: Well, I… the only experience I’ve had of immigration since, is obviously renewing my green card, and it seems to be a lot better organized. Basically, an attorney dealt with the paperwork. But, you had to, you know the place would open at 9 o’clock, and you basically need to get there a good 45 minutes [early] to sort of be able to get out of there on time that day. Because it was, you know, very, very busy. It was first come first serve, and you spent hours sitting around just waiting and waiting and waiting. Now, they actually have – they’ve got a new office now in Detroit – and they’ve got, they actually have an appointment process. So, now you have an appointment and, you know, it’s light-years from what it was.
JC: And also, in those days, they were pretty rude. [laughs]
JC: You know? I was treated okay because I was wearing a suit and I had an attorney with me, but I heard how they spoke to some people. You know, I was asked… I remember once when I made a misstatement on entering the United States of America, and then I hear some poor guy next [to me] go, “Have you ever lied coming into the United States of America?” You know, a whole different process, but now, my experience has been a lot, lot better. So, I can only assume that the paperwork may be improved, too, I don’t know.
ELV: Maybe because of the internet too, you know…
JC: Well, that’s right, ’cause those days there was no internet and there was no really computerization like there is today. That’s right, yeah, that’s a good point, so, you know, the whole thing is a lot easier. You can actually book your appointment online now and, you know… So yes, that’s a very good point, yeah.
ELV: So, are you a U.S. citizen, and if you are, what was that process like for you?
JC: No, I’m not a citizen.
JC: There’s no advantage to me to become a citizen as a British citizen. The only disadvantage is I can’t vote and I can’t own farmland in Nebraska.
ELV: Oh, that’s a disappointment [laughs].
JC: [Laughs] That’s another little crooked thing, you see. And the other big advantage for me is when I go across to the U.K. – which I do twice a year usually – is I can go in on my British passport very quickly as a British citizen, instead of standing in line forever. We have long lines of people coming in from other countries. And when I come back to the USA, I come in with the green card, I come in with the U.S. citizens. So, I get, you know, reasonably quick treatment either side.
ELV: So, is that considered dual citizenship, is that…?
JC: No, ’cause I don’t have American citizenship.
ELV: Oh, I see, I see.
JC: It’s still on the green card. Now, you ask an interesting question, because if I become an American citizen, as far as the Americans are concerned, I have to swear allegiance to the flag and give up, you know, my British citizenship. But the British government doesn’t recognize the American government’s right to take my citizenship away from me. So, I can… you know, unless I go to the British consulate and say I want to announce my citizenship, you know, I would actually have two nationalities. I’d have to have my fingers crossed behind my back or something, I don’t know.
JC: But my kids both have two nationalities because under British law, if you register their birth within the first two years with the British consulate, they get a British birth certificate because nationality in England isn’t… America’s kind of, I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s unusual, because in America if you’re born in America you become a citizen automatically. But, it’s not true in other countries, a lot of – most other countries. If you’re born in the U.K., you get your citizenship from your parents.
ELV: Oh that’s interesting.
JC: So, if your parents aren’t British, you don’t get British citizenship by just by virtue of being born there.
ELV: And then, another question – when you came to the United States, what did you miss most about leaving your country?
JC: Oh, it was a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be. Because, the first thing is, when you’ve been here six months, you never meet anybody you’ve known for more than six months. So I think I’d gone to Canada… I had probably gotten homesick and gone home, ’cause it was sort of a mix between the two – but I just had to adapt. So, really, still, to this day, I miss the sort of… the British humor and the British culture because it’s a different culture, you know? You grow up in one culture. And so… particularly the relationship between men, which is larger based on humor and banter and so on, is very different in the U.K. To this day, I really don’t have any, what I would call “close American male friends.”
ELV: Oh, wow.
JC: You know, I have friends, but… that may be something to do with age, too, because you know, you form real bonding friendships when you’re pretty young, too, so it might have a lot to do with that. But, the big difference is the Atlantic has shrunk, because now… literally, it’s crazy. You know, I can call my sister from the phone in my pocket, whereas, when I first came here, I had a landline on the wall there, and I had to go through the operator. And then you got a [unintelligible] landline under the Atlantic and you’re miles away. I see more of my sister living in America than I would if I lived in the U.K. [Laughs.]
JC: You see, because when I go back I stay with her, so I basically spend pretty… base myself on her house, you know, for four weeks a year. Well, who sees their sister for four weeks a year, you know?
JC: Unless I lived next door or something. [Laughs.]
ELV: And then, I have a question. One thing I’ve found interesting – I’ve interviewed people from Italy, Scotland, Iraq, and a few other countries – and I have a question. I thought it was interesting that all of them mentioned the difference in food…
JC: Oh, yeah.
ELV: … between their country and the United States. Did you find – when you immigrated in 1979 – did you find that also?
JC: Well, only to a degree. Yes, obviously there were some, sort of, you know, different emphases. I mean, the food wasn’t totally different from how it is in the U.K. What was different was when you went to a supermarket, you couldn’t just buy one chop. You gotta buy half a dozen or something, you know. Cause I was used to sort of just stopping in my car on the way home at the butcher and picking up a lamb chop or something, and you know, going home and cooking it. But, I had to sort of… So, the purchasing, the buying was a little different. There were some difference in names, like a courgette was now a zucchini, and an eggplant was a… no an aubergine was an eggplant, and some mysterious things like that. And only other big difference, of course, was just the sheer size of portions, what you got in restaurants. I mean, it was just gluttonous.
JC: It’s a little better now here in America than it was. I mean, back in the ’70s, gluttony was the order of the day, you know. You’d have this huge plate piled high with God-knows-what on it.
ELV: Did you experience – I know one gal I interviewed, she said the fast-food restaurants were just unbelievable to her when she got here, because in her country, which was Italy, they didn’t have fast-food restaurants, and she said she found that very odd – did you find our fast food in the United States odd or …?
JC: I didn’t… No, I didn’t actually, because we didn’t really have much in the way of fast food then. And, I don’t think, with anything like the proliferation of pizza places and things, even in America… but now that there is now [sic!] in 1979.
So, what I… the big change that I have noticed is that I notice that people really didn’t garden when I came here, and now many many more people are into gardening. There was no sort of real garden centers – not a garden center. The bars were all sort of back in the days of prohibition, you know, in dark [sic!] and no windows, and you couldn’t sit outside. I mean, it was just… it was really different in that respect. Now, of course, it’s much more European. You know, if you don’t have outdoor eating, you’ve got to almost have outdoor seating now, if possible now. Everyone wants to sit outside. They don’t want to be in a dark, sort of, black hole of Kolkata having a beer, but that’s how it was here in the 1970s. So, that was very different, too.
ELV: So, what is the one thing you miss most about your country?
JC: Humor… Yeah, the humor. You know, the humor here is… so politically correct at the moment and, so definitely I miss the humor the most of all. And just, I think having… you kind of know what you can say to people and what you can’t, and… you know, so, yeah. It definitely…
ELV: Did you feel the same way in the ’70S and now, the same way – the humor? Do you think it’s just…
JC: Yes, I would say now it’s kind of, it’s almost a nightmare. You can’t… funny, I belong to Intonations, and I had a big laugh with an African girl from the Cameroon and it was kind of funny. It was so different because she was the only black girl in the room, and I thought she was another black girl that I knew, she had a big laugh about it. You see, now here, it was a bit of a faux-pas. It could have been culturally, sort of, you know… racially… something. I mean, she just thought it was hugely funny. But it was a faux-pas on my part, but, you know… so what? You know, I mean, but here, it’s sort of so… so uptight about everything. You know, you can’t… we should laugh at our differences. You know, if you’re Welsh, you’re automatically called “Kathy.” If you’re Scottish, you’re called “Jock.” And if you’re Irish, you’re called “Patty.” And you know, it’s sort of… we joke about it and tease each other about it. But here’s, it’s differences of sort of… I don’t know.
ELV: Sensitive, people are sensitive maybe …?
JC: Yeah, they are sensitive. I mean, I’m not talking about really being… you know, just sort of normal… again, that’s part of humor.
ELV: Or, as my father would say, “touchy.” “Don’t be so touchy.” [Both laugh.] Well, I want to thank you for taking out the time to tell me about your journey to immigrating. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
JC: The only thing was that everything smelled different when I came here. The inside of cars smelled different and… So, it was like a… it was quite hard to… because I used to come to America and say, “I like America, but I could never live there.”
ELV: What was the difference in the smell, like …?
JC: I don’t know, it just smelled different [sic!] . It was a different material or different… I don’t know, but it was different. But, you have to make a decision, you know, not to keep comparing. You have to say, “I’m gonna take the best of both worlds.” I think that’s the advantage of being an immigrant, as opposed to someone coming here for, you know, two years or something on business because they know they’re going back, they’ve no need to adapt. And they can say, “Well, I don’t like this,” or “I don’t like that,” or whatever it is. But… and then after a while… ’cause I’ve actually lived in America longer than I’ve lived in the U.K. You begin to hear how people speak out of their culture in the U.K., and how people speak out of their culture in the U.S.A., and you have a different perspective on it.
JC: And you have… Say, you’re thinking to yourself, much more internationally than nationally. And… ’cause I’m very much, you know, interested in people from other countries and, you know, I don’t look at the world in terms of the U.S.A. or the U.K., or whatever it is. I don’t wake up in the morning feeling like that, you know? I have a wildlife charity – I deal with people in Africa and Asia and so on. And so, you know… it’s the question of really what your outlook on life is.
JC: You know?
ELV: Do you think you would ever go back and live in England permanently?
JC: I don’t know. It’s not something I think about. Economically, it would be very difficult to do. I would certainly think of going to Europe, you know, like going to Spain or somewhere, rather than the U.K., mainly because of the weather. [Laughs.]
JC: And being in Michigan, you want to get out of it. Ideally what I’d like to do, quite honestly, is, you know, spend the winters in Europe and the summers in Michigan, ’cause Michigan’s great climate in the summer.
JC: My kids stay here, so I got no real reason to move back. I suppose the… you know, fortunately, at the moment… probably, honestly, a medical condition, I might… you know, I got reasonable insurance, I might be forced to move back because that’s the killer in this country. You know, because we have a medical system which, quite frankly, is a disgrace. So, you know, that’s the… I didn’t even think about those things when I came here. You know, of course, I had corporate medical coverage and all that. But… yeah, so… just the best of both worlds.
ELV: Well, I want to thank you, John, for taking the time to help me with my project. This has been a lot of fun. Thank you.
JC: Thank you.