The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, June 11, 2009

How America lost an immigrant.

I once had a Green Card, for America - yes, that much prized Green Card. To maintain my Green Card, I made sure that I spent some time in America, every year. Yet, one day, I decided that enough was enough. America didn't seem worth the effort.

One year, you see, I was trying to enter the US at JFK Airport, with my Green Card in hand. Oddly, however, I was stopped by the immigration fellow and asked to go to a special holding room. There I sat, the only white face in a sea of dark skinned immigrants from countries no one has ever heard of. I thought it most peculiar.

As I waited - and they really made me wait - I looked around and watched what unfolded. It soon became quite clear that many of my fellow waiters were in for some trouble. America didn't want to let them in. America was suspicious of their origins and intentions and had little trouble finding reasons to deny them entry.

As I waited, I became more and more nervous, watching how ill my fellow waiters were treated. Those doing the interrogations - sorry "interviewing" - were very aggressive. The primary interviewers were a large black man who would look at home in a boxing ring - and his black female assistant. Neither seemed able to smile and both were rather harsh in their discourse with their victims.

Eventually, it was my turn. The interrogation was unbelievably aggressive. They seemed possessed of the idea that it was wrong to spend so long outside the USA - and why had I done so? (I wondered at this since I was within the legal limit to maintain my card, of less than one year, outside). They went back and forth, levying a barrage of almost shouted questions upon me. I had never been spoken to in this way before. The vehemence of their style of questioning bordered on the violent. I felt myself shake a little, convinced that I was going to be sent back on the plane I had come in on.

Yet, as I thought that, I had another thought: why, on Earth, would I want to live in a country that bullied people at immigration, in such a way? I was being abused and harangued, simply because I had decided to take a plane to the USA. They even did this despite the Irish passport I was carrying and the Green Card in my hand. It was at that moment that I kind of decided that I would never, again, be subject to the bullying immigration officers of the United States: I would never again set foot in the "Land of the Free". (Free from what, I wonder? Certainly, they are not free from aggression, harrassment, or bullying.)

As it turned out, I never did go back to the United States. The unpleasant experience I had had was so distinct in memory that it quite decided me that the US was no place to be. Indeed, only someone inured to violence and aggression could possibly choose such a place, as a home.

As a final thought, I am left to wonder at the extent of the harrassment levied out to others not possessed of a "Green Card"...for I was a legal resident...and still they were abusive. The whole situation is mindboggling. What a country.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

We are the founders of Genghis Can, a copywriting, editing and proofreading agency, that handles all kinds of work, including technical and scientific material. If you need such services, or know someone who does, please go to: Thanks.

This blog is copyright Valentine Cawley. Unauthorized duplication prohibited. Use Only with Permission. Thank you.)

Labels: , , , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:24 PM 


Blogger Christine said...

I don't understand why those people had to do that to you. You did nothing wrong and had the legal documents.
Even though you are white and got treated like that, I do think that the darker skinned people get it more often. That's why you were in a room filled with dark-skinned people.
I don't care about going back to the USA. I don't see it as a haven. The more I live and travel abroad, the more I realise that the USA is just another place on the map.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, it was wrong of them to do that. The irony of it is that one thing I remember the large black man saying to me: "You have got to make a decision" - regarding where I was going to spend the bulk of my time: the USA or elsewhere. Of course, his own aggression pretty much made my decision for me. America REALLY does NOT know how to treat people. Perhaps that is why they are so hated in so many parts of the world. It isn't about religion, so much, I think, as about the way they treat people. Imagine, just imagine, what tales go back to all those "dark skinned" people's countries when first they get abused by immigration officers and then they get sent back home. What kind of word of mouth are they creating for the USA? Every single incident of poor behaviour - like the one I experienced - gets communicated to hundreds of people directly and many thousands by rumours. America is quietly destroying itself by such behaviour.

Thanks for your comment, Christine.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cawley,

Although you had your cupful with the immigration folks at JFK Airport, you could perhaps make some allowance for regional variations. USA is a large and diverse nation, and generalising about it would leave us none the wiser.

I mean, JFK Airport is in New York and New Yorkers are (in comparison to Americans from other parts) competitive and aggressive. It seems as though being tough is a virtue, and that they really believe that "nice guys finish last". This seems to be the most plausible explanation for the attitude and behaviour of the large black man.

I dare say that you would have been treated differently if it had been (for e.g.) San Francisco instead of New York. The folks from San Francisco are more relaxed and friendly. The official policy may still require you to make a decision, but you may expect to be treated more civilly.

I have not set foot in any American airport, so why do I say this? In my 2 previous jobs, I have dealt with attorneys as well as lay clients from New York, San Francisco and other cities in USA. The attorneys and lay clients from New York are ... well, tough and aggressive. The ones from San Francisco are pleasant and easy to work with. The requirements and issues were the same, but the human element, the behaviour and attitude, were significantly different. That's regional variation at work.

But let me share my experiences with airports (of the same country) that I had actually been to. In 2004 I made 2 visits to Perth, Western Australia. In 2005, I made 1 visit to Sydney.

On both occasions, the Perth immigration behaved in a fairly courteous, matter of fact and fuss-free manner. I have no complaints whatsoever. But the Sydney immigration behaved rather inappropriately. Among other personal questions, they asked about my marital status. When told that I am single, made an unwarranted comment about me being a "swinging bachelor". And upon seeing from my passport that I had also travelled to UK, Ireland and Malaysia commented that I was "a lucky man". Well, the truth was that I had worked hard and saved hard. There was nothing to be envious about. Of course, this was a far cry from what you had experienced in JFK airport. There was no shouting and no aggression. But I mention this just to indicate that any large country would inevitably be diverse (in its people, institutions and practices) and show up regional variations.

I am sure that the travellers (whether frequent or not) who read this blog would know a horror story or two about the omnipotent immigration officers.

I remember reading a few years ago, in The Straits Times, about one Mr Yip (a Macau passport holder) who was in transit through Changi Airport on his way to Manchester to visit his daughter. For some reason, the airport police doubted the authenticity of Mr Yip's passport so he was detained (for how many hours, I can't remember). However, Mr Yip managed to telephone his daughter in Manchester and also his brother in Hong Kong. When interviewed by The Straits Times, Mr Yip's daughter mentioned that her dad sounded really scared, saying that the airport police threatened to beat him up. Mr Yip's brother complained about the same thing and demanded an apology from Changi Airport and the Singapore police. Of course, none had been given. In the end: there was nothing wrong with Mr Yip's passport.

Well, Mr Cawley, did the large black man threaten to lay a hand on you?

Even if the answer is NO, and even making due allowance for different attitudes from different parts of USA - I am inclined to agree with you that USA doesn't know how to treat people. These mini John Waynes are just like the proverbial bull in the china shop. If only they could just put down the John Wayne in themselves, and start dealing with other peoples and cultures with a little more discretion and sensitivity. And voila - they would have a better foreign policy.


10:20 PM  
Anonymous ks said...

We as a family face immigration officers in the 'special room' everytime we travel back to the US since my husband is not American. But, we had a friendly officer for the first time in 10 years when we travelled through Washington, DC on our most recent trip.

It can also be daunting just applying for a passport for children! When I went to *renew* a passport for one child, my husband and I (having been married for 10 years, with 3 children) were interrogated. The first question, "how did you meet?" And, with the atmosphere inside and the 'hardness' of the questioner, I felt as if I were required to give her my life story!

11:04 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. It is strange. They seem to be proceeding on the assumption of "guilty until proven innocent".

There is also the matter of their "hardness"...surely such a style is unnecessary and always loses America something it could have had: a good first impression.

Thanks for your comment.

By the way: have you experienced such problems at immigration elsewhere?

12:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Mr(?) Clunies-Ross for your extensive reply.

No. The large black man did not threaten to hit me, but his overall tone would not have been out of place with someone who was doing so. He was very "tough" to use your word.

It is an interesting point you make: that of regional variation in behaviour. It may very well be so that it was New Yorker way of greeting an immigrant...nevertheless that doesn't change the damaging effect it has on the American overseas public image. It cannot be overestimated how damaging abusing hundreds, perhaps thousands of people every day, at immigration, in each of America's airports, every day, is to America's overseas reputation. Each person so abused takes back a tale that does America no good at all.

Your tale of Mr. Yip shows that Singapore, as ever, is trying its best to compete...even with the worst!

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Cawley,

Yes, USA is making itself hated overseas. But I think this may well be due to OTHER reasons: their pro-Israel policies, and also the trigger happy and war mongering ways of their ex-President Dubya.

I hesitate to attribute USA's unpopularity (to any significant extent) to its Immigration officers. If I may be forgiven for generalising, the "exercise" of immigration power is pretty much the same worldwide (allowing for individual, human differences).

Methinks it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of ANY country's immigration officers. They do have an inordinate amount of power, and they know it. They are seldom (if at all) accountable and in some countries (a prime e.g. being Singapore) their decisions are not justiciable, i.e. may not be appealed to court.

So even if the legality of your situation is not in doubt, so long as an immigration officer suspects, feels or thinks that something is not in order - be prepared for some unpleasantness. Of course, the level of unpleasantness will vary for different persons (depending on nationality, skin colour, etc).

Briefly put, a portion of the world's travellers have been abused by the world's immigration officers (and not just US immigration officers)!

What follows is not about abuse, but I just want to ask if you have ever experienced suspicious immigration officers throwing "test questions" at you at the clearance/processing counter (NOT in a holding room which is for identified problem cases).

I got a few such questions from a Malaysian officer when I arrived at Kuala Lumpur. He asked me about the time of touch down and the number of the flight I was on. He next asked me: "You from Singapore - you know Marine Parade?" [NB: for non-Singaporeans, Marine Parade is a place, a constituency on the east coast of Singapore.] Of course I do. My childhood and early adulthood was spent in its vicinity; and I then moved into and am still living within this constituency. I can't remember what I said, but the officer seemed stumped by my immediate, spontaneous reply. After an awkward silence, he waved me on. He was not rude, just a trifle suspicious. He must have thought that I was a fake Singaporean and that he was going to catch me on something.

To end on a positive note, I did actually have a pleasant experience with an immigration authority. That was during my Dec 2001 visit to Dublin. The officer who processed me was not only courteous. What struck me were his tone and manner - genuinely nice and friendly. He certainly stood out from all the other immigration officers I had come across.

This should gladden your Irish heart. Do you ever miss your home town in the Emerald Isle?


1:25 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Mr. Clunies-Ross,

I do miss Ireland and Europe in general: I miss the banter, the spontaneity of conversation, the richness of language: most locals in Singapore speak in a simplified way that omits much of interest in the use of English.

Irish people have a reputation for friendliness which is not undeserved compared to the more reserved English of the UK...I think that was what you encountered in Dublin.

Yes. I have encountered test questions...but only in the US. One type of question is "Where will you be living, in the US?" They expected an address. If they didn't like the address...then they would get funny. God knows why. The odd thing is, he was looking at a monitor, so I think he already had what he thought the answer would be and was checking my answer against that one.

Good luck with your travels in future.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Cawley

What you say about the friendly Irish rings true.

Not just in Dublin (where I had spent only 2 days) but also in other towns I had visited such as Killarney, Kenmare and Dingle in County Kerry, and a town (can't remember the name) in County Clare. I must also add that 2 of my fellow passengers on a flight from London to Dublin, both elderly Irish ladies, were warm and friendly, and initiated a pleasant conversation with me, a total stranger.

Before my visit to Ireland, I had studied and lived in England for a year and I can honestly say that the friendliest among the student population were the Irish.

Well, it's not just you, Mr Cawley. I, too, miss the friendliness exuded by the Irish people since I returned to Singapore.


10:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape