Almost more harrowing than being flung out the door of the pre-WWII plane into the dust of some obscure foreign country is what is commonly known in the industry as re-insertion:* returning to live in one’s country of origin after many years in some glorious foreign land that only made it onto the world map in the past 2 decades. After years of brutal treatment to forget your own culture and learn someone else’s, you discover that even though now you’re “home” you still don’t fit in, although many people marvel at the socks/sandals combo you’ve mastered in the meantime. When I returned to Australia for university, I thankfully had a large group of friends to come back to, which helped ease the transition. I think they looked out for my wellbeing because they felt sorry for me. Without such a safety net, most MK’s would perish in the first week: messy roadkill spread along the shoulder of the highway of life, or stuck in the Chevy grill of destiny. Of course, friends was ALL I had to ease the transition. My suitcase contained one pair of jeans, some T-Shirts, a pair of dress pants that got stained by leaking air-con in the freight compartment on the flight, and some shards of pottery that were, in a previous life, a plate for a friend. I didn’t complete Grade 12 in Australia (required for university entrance) and the only official pieces of paper I had after 6 years of high school were my SAT results and a few report cards that all said “could do better if he applied himself.” All completely worthless over here, since we don’t care for the SAT and prefer to put our Grade 12 students through the hardest year of their life. My SAT results were probably pretty worthless in the U.S. too I’d wager, looking at my score, although, without big-noting myself, I did get the highest result in my class. Of 9 students. In a 3rd-world country. Anyway, so I began the long walk (I wouldn’t be able to afford a car for at least another 10 years) to the university to start my academic career. I had Bolivian ID, dusty socks, and an SAT score sheet as the firm foundation of my tertiary study. I reasoned similar dire circumstances no doubt kickstarted the careers of Matthew McConaughey and Britney Spears but I took little solace from the fact that luck favours the attractive. Pulling my sweaty underpants from betwixt my buttocks, I trudged on, unwavering, until I got sucker punched at the admissions office: none of my application paperwork had arrived from Bolivia 3 months ago as intended. It was most likely bobbing in the pacific somewhere in the middle of burning aircraft wreckage and flotsam. I discovered though, to my delight, that the course co-ordinator was my old next-door neighbour, whose lawn I used to water as a kid when they were on holidays, since they made at least 5 times my parents’ annual income in one month and could afford pseudo-groundskeepers. I slipped him my SAT results and he promised to get me into the course. Horticultural skills notwithstanding, and without any money passing under the table, a pretty good effort at university entrance I’d say. It seemed I’d brought home some Bolivian in me, and was on my way to getting another useless piece of paper from an educational institution. So, lesson one: It’s who you know.
As a returning MK, you also get in the habit of having to explain everything you say to everyone you meet, since nothing about you makes sense. For one, you’re speaking in an American accent, ’cause that twang spreads like cholera when you’re overseas surrounded by U.S. folk, and every humourous point of reference you make, background story or funny anecdote is met with blank stares and pitiful looks. It’s a tough journey. Getting your driver’s license in Bolivia is much easier than in Australia for instance. This is how the conversation went (translated for you, the audience) at the police station in Cochabamba:
Me: “I’d like to get my driver’s license please.”
Cop: “Sure, that’s $150.”
Me: “What?! My friend got one last week for a hundred bucks!”
Cop: (after pondering for a few seconds) “Ok, $100.”
Acquiring a Driver’s License in Australia is about 105 times harder than that, but being a proud holder of a genuine Bolivian license did mean I could skip quite a few steps in the process, like the cavity search and the deep background check. Growing up, I had always confused the two, which led to some awkward situations over the years at customs. I really had no idea how the Australian system worked, but was told I could drive around to my heart’s content, without all the extra work the kids have to do these days, like sobriety tests and Grade 3 comprehension.
My first experience with the Australian Police and their Random Breath Test was a complete failure. I’d never had my breath tested before, at least not by anyone who wasn’t my girlfriend, 5 minutes prior to a movie, so I had no idea what to do when the not wholly-attractive female police officer slowly approached my vehicle. The only experience I’d ever had with the Australian Police at all was when they chased down a naked guy on our front lawn in the middle of the night, during which he tried to extricate himself by pleading “I’m not sure why I was so hot officer” in the bleak hope that spontaneous global warming might get him off the hook. I’ve heard that in the US they use amazing advances in technology to test for drunk driving, like making you walk along with your finger on your nose, or watching for erratic swerving and the mowing down of innocent pedestrians. In Australia you blow into a little device that reads your blood-alcohol level from your breath. Except I didn’t know any of this, so when the officer at my door said “take a deep breath” I followed her directions to the T and sucked on that little straw till I was blue in the face and nearly passed out. Bewildered at the non-responsive unit, she asked “are you blowing out?” as my friends in the car almost passed out themselves, from fits of laughter. Shaking her head, the cop wrote out a ticket that said: could do better if he applied himself, and sent me on my way.
*Made it up just then.