why twinkies? we thought it was funny.

John Oliver is a British comedian working on The Daily Show. This summer he is filling in as host while regular host Jon Stewart is away. For this reason the NPR show Fresh Air recently broadcast an interview they did with John Oliver a couple of years ago.

The last couple of minutes of that interview John Oliver tells host Terri Gross about working in the US, on The Daily Show, before he had a green card. Terri Gross assumes that means he had been working on TV, right under everyone’s noses, illegally.

So, John Oliver explains to Terri Gross the difference between a working visa and a green card.

In my experience, however many views Americans have on immigration, very few understand what visas (the right to cross a border during a certain time period, sometimes also the right to work in the foreign country), green cards (the right to live and work permanently in the US), and citizenship (the right to vote, and various duties to serve), really mean.

One of my colleagues became an American citizen a few years ago, and to celebrate there was a little lunch-time party for him. Everyone was asked to bring a small “typical American” gift. My friend and I wrapped a box of Twinkies since the new American was something of a food snob. Someone else gave away one of his own pay stubs, adding, “Well, I guess it’s time for you to start paying taxes!”.

Really? You think people who are not citizens pay no tax, when they have regular jobs? If that were the case there would be fewer new citizens, I’d imagine.

In the radio interview John Oliver talks about traveling to London to renew his visa at the American embassy every year. One year the person interviewing him made a joke, stone faced, asking him for one reason why he should be let back into the US if all he was going to do was continuing criticizing the country?

The point of this entire story is that at that moment, John Oliver said, his blood froze.

As an immigrant, or a foreigner, you are incredibly vulnerable. Even if you crack jokes for a living, there are times you’ll find jokes highly inappropriate, and your fear takes over. Even if you are highly educated, or highly successful, you are still vulnerable. Someone gets to make the decision whether or not to stamp your passport, and there is very little you can do about it.

I did my interview for my green card at the American embassy in Stockholm. When I was done I was going to meet a friend for lunch. My sense of direction is poor under any circumstances, but even I know the difference between walking towards the city center, and walking away from the city, out onto a picturesque island. I had walked a mile in the wrong direction before I realized my mistake.

mad men

I’ve followed Mad Men religiously this season. Partially because I think it’s good TV in all of its pretentious multilayered symbolism, and partially because it’s fun to follow a TV series closely enough that the next day blow-by-blow commentary makes sense to you. (Two examples: New York Times’ “Talking Mad Men”, and Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy”. Also, Salon.com’s recaps.)

And, it’s fun to see the 1960s brought back to life by ambitious well-researched costume and set design people. I remember the 1960s, even tho I didn’t live through them in New York. I recognize the clothes, the music, the political events. I realize I’m heavily influenced by what happened then. Because I was a kid in the 1960s, what I learned about the world I understood to be normal. Riots, assassinations, deeply rooted, sometimes violent, conflicts between people of different races, different generations, or different ideologies. I’m thinking more and more about what all those things really have come to mean to me.