From the LabLit Short Story Series

João Ramalho-Santos 20 January 2008

The scientific system nurtures its own, recognizes familiar odors, creates a massive immune response against all things foreign

The monitor hums into life, gray images oscillating as the camera completes its choppy sweep. A hand reaches for the microphone button, hesitates, stops. Whatever fun was to be had is long gone. A man in an empty room, head bowed over a table. A plate with an orange, a notebook. Still life. It will be a long afternoon. And there is only silence.

I was in Germany when it happened.

Looking back I do remember a few people gathering around TV sets in the hotel lobby, some distress. Though it may have sounded like the distress one politely awards a tragedy that doesn’t particularly hit home. I didn’t think much at the time, but let’s be honest. I probably would have thought it was just another terrible thing in a world where we are very close to being immune to terrible things, however spectacular.

OK, so let’s be totally honest. I probably would have thought something along the lines of hoping my flights hadn’t been cancelled, and that the paperwork would not need to be reviewed. The damned visa, the J-1 work permit, my personal ticket to the land of plenty, that’s all I really would have worried about. The new world order, globalization, fights against terrorists, or support of freedom fighters (I could never get those two straight), all that stuff was someone else’s problem. I’d think about it once I had permanent job, a green card, the right to have opinions, a divorce.

Actually, the divorce part was supposed to be easy. Except I had married a wild German citizen that just happened to be the strictest “administrative” Roman Catholic you would ever want to meet. “Administrative” meaning she would go through different forms of sin as if it were on sale, but immediately retract into The Faith as soon as a crisis was upon her. So she wanted an Annulment. Just a plain divorce wasn’t good enough. The Pope had to bless our misery, as he had our bliss. So she would be free to “properly” sin again. Then again, she wasn’t that bad, I’m over it, the signatures are all in place, we’ve been re-blessed, it’s done.

I guess it all boiled down to running away and obsessing with perfection. That much we had in common. Not that it was too hard, half the people at the institute in Melbourne had at least one of those qualities. Nobody goes to Australia. Australia is the place you happen to arrive at when running away from somewhere else. And you’re at least smart enough to stop before New Zealand. So I guess it was the obsession. Better still: the obsessions. Work, the gym, the garden, the wine, the cars, the cooking, the barbie. Outlets for our common maniacal drive for the perfect something. A drive that, unfortunately, never quite included each other as much more than mutual spectators.

Although I hate to admit it, it lasted as long as it did because it was exciting. We were like secret lovers who exploded together, exchanging tall tales about succeeding in our respective, separate, corners of the world. She was into nematode parasites, I was doing population genetics. I know, how fascinating. Except both our jobs had to do with sheep.

Sheep are a pretty big deal in Australia. Every time a new strain of parasite resistant to current treatments showed up she was in the lab 24/7 trying to fix the problem, interfacing with drug companies, then all over the country helping implement whatever solution they had come up with. Whenever a bad year brought down wool production or quality I poured over mathematical models in high-level meetings, suggesting ways to improve the fitness of the population. I never thought I’d see sheep as the pivotal topic in any national crisis, but, then again, this wasn’t my nation.

Please spare the mid-life crisis comments, or any clever metaphoric imagery involving lambs. We had enough of those from both the marriage counselors and the priests. Ever since a shift in policy and a consolidation of monitoring agencies cancelled half the funding, workload and traveling a few years ago. And we decided to use the spare time to get married, spend more time together.

It was bad. All the careful scheduling that had worked so well in the previous four years, largely due to the fact that we either normally missed each other or met in a state of shared exhaustion or exhilaration, was suddenly powerless to contain the chaos. In the end I realized it was not really an ending. There had never been a beginning. Except neither State nor Church look kindly on these philosophies. The beginning was in paper, the ending had to be as well. Except it took longer, it took forever. She moved back to Europe, went into the restaurant business (a good biochemist is also a good cook), won awards for innovative lamb dishes, found someone, got pregnant. I lingered in Melbourne looking for a ticket out of there until I made one. And that was why I was at the airport hotel, while planes crashed into buildings in New York City. Trying to kill both the marriage and my past life in a single stopover. I’m sorry, but those were the only deaths I was concerned with.

I was on the first plane they cleared to land.


There are minute things that can be learned by watching. Like discovering that the room’s opaque walls (are they really glass?) have a few scattered clear panels. How long have they been there? Since yesterday, for over two months? What happened? How did they got broken, who was in there, what could they have done, why couldn’t something like that happen today, why were there no opaque panels to replace them, who budgets these things. It takes a lot to do nothing. And watching without being seen is never as exciting as it sounds.

During frequent drinking stupors I almost believed that she had weighed me down in Australia. For the record, that is simply not true. I had tried the US before. But the US hadn’t wanted to try me.

However, I did use the energy from the collapsing marriage as momentum. I think it was that, more than anything that made me apply for the advanced training course. That, and perhaps all the questions about koalas, kangaroos and pandas that were a constant on my visits back home. At least distance had made marriage (and divorce) a fleeting issue for the family.

Yes, I know. Pandas. That’s how foreign Australia was to my family. In the grand atlas of things it just fell slightly out of their frame of reference. You see, sometimes a person is coated with a symbol. If you think you know a place, if there are vivid images in your mind of what it should look like, regardless of their accuracy, then the emigrant becomes the place. If not, it’s the other way around; the place only exists because of a person that lives there. That was the difference between my parents solemnly announcing to friends and family “he is in America”, or “he is in Australia”. Sound pretty much the same, but there is an ocean between them. You don’t see, do you? Once you do, you’ll understand why I applied to that killer of a course.

Six weeks of non-stop seminars and networking with experts in the field. Except it was supposed to be for young researchers, in the midst of establishing their own independent programs. I had neither of those attributes, would probably be labeled an underachiever. So I lied. Actually, that doesn’t do it justice. To say that I had to lie almost about everything would be more accurate.

I’ll admit luck was somewhat involved. There were no other participants from Australia; none of the people who had supposedly signed my letters of recommendation showed up, professors processing the applications didn’t fully research them. The topics of lectures were broad enough, and the interests of some of the other participants narrow enough, that I could find a few things I knew nobody else knew, thus becoming an instant, albeit partially bluffing, expert. Some of the bona fide young researchers had aged poorly, or didn’t take good care of themselves, and it also is never too late to play the poor scientist from an impoverished country. Plus, they didn’t card at the door.

Those six weeks ended up being the most demanding of my entire life. The course was hard enough, but I had to be two different people at once, and make sure that I kept them straight. The first me was the one that had filled out the application form, the young scientist on the rise with his own lab in Melbourne. Second me was a guy looking for a job in the US, any job that would allow him to leave Australia. Not only did first me have a good job, he should never even be considering the kind of positions the second me was begging for. The compromise I managed to arrange was to hide second me from the permanent faculty, and make him available only to some select lecturers that came in for a day. And I’m not proud to say the choices had nothing to do with quality, or my particular interest in their fields. It was all geography.

I wasn’t even looking for New York, Boston, San Francisco. But if there was a constant I had picked up from professional meetings was that there were a lot of compatriots with tenure in the middle of Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma. They all seemed to make a very good point: what were dead-end jobs for most of the researchers trained in the US could be excellent entry points for anyone else. One person’s shit, another’s manure. So I bothered Middle America. Sometimes subtly, often less. The first professor laughed me away. Actually, he laughed second me away, thinking I was first me. This would be a recurring problem, so by week two I had given first me the emotional distress of a divorce and several other unhappy personal issues that made him hunger for a remote fresh start. First me morphed into second me, and finally there were job offers I could use. Wary of wasting too much time weighing in different options, but also thinking of previous experiences, I carefully chose the best offer, cruised through the course, went back to deal with the necessary paperwork and packing.

I often think that if I had put as much creativity into my life as I put into those six weeks, I would have been much more successful at just about anything.


Maybe the microphone can capture the minute shrieks of writing. No. But it can barely sense the noise that sweeps through corridors, on the right side of the glass walls. Excited steps that can be muffled by no carpet. Can meaning be pinned on the sounds? A word, a language? It goes by too softly and too quickly. There is no way to tell time under the neon lights, no landmarks. The marching crowds don’t come at regular intervals. Sometimes one follows another in quick succession, two separate commotions almost becoming one. Then silence. Patterns are needed, not found.

Not being very good is bad. But being good enough to realize it is worse. It takes some intelligence to truly appreciate the level of one’s ignorance, which is why the latter is often considered bliss.

When finishing up my thesis work there were really no illusions. I knew two ways of getting a great job back home. Greatness, or the right connections. I had neither. A brighter future lay, as it often does, in going abroad. You see, the rules change when you go work in a different, richer, country. Friends of mine raved about their cousins and aunts working in a place where no one understood a word they said. Being a janitor or a housemaid over there seemed almost more prestigious than being a doctor back home. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. The point is you could actually be perceived as being successful working as a janitor. As if there was access to secret knowledge and cleaning products no one had ever seen. As if the poverty and violence you might face were somehow better. But it couldn’t be any somewhere else. Or you were still just a janitor.

I gave it my best shot. But I was a shell of the consummate pro that would emerge out of Australia years later. Clumsy letters, little follow through, no real research into what potential employers were looking for, bad grammar. Having now received a few myself, I can easily pick up the empty desperation in the “please help me, anything is better than this” letters. I wouldn’t have given myself a job either. On top of all this, I was now almost seven years older. Employers wanted competent young minds that could still be molded, not people set in their ways, as one candidly explained.

Except, by then, pressed for answers as to what the future would actually bring, I had foolishly committed to emigration. I was going away, I had to be good. At the very least, a better kind of janitor. There was no real choice, so the net became wider. Canada, Europe, Australia. It was either accept the first thing that came my way, or go down in flames.

To be honest, when I first got the offer from Melbourne half of me wanted to believe it could be somewhere in Alabama.


The clear panels seem to have been placed in order to tease those who wait. Even from above, even from a cheap monitor, the ones closest to the floor reveal shoes in the thundering crowds coming through. The others a few hats, hairstyles and foreheads of only the tallest walkers. It is truly amazing the insights into peoples lives that can be imagined with the briefest of glimpses. And the longest of times.

The system. That’s where someone like me belongs. The system nurtures its own, recognizes familiar odors, creates a massive immune response against all things foreign. Problem is, there are several systems. Millions of them, really. Schools. Countries. Companies. Families. Circles of friends. All sorts of clubs. Freemasons, Opus Dei, Illuminati, Voodoo doctors, Copacabana she-males and left-handed football players for crying out loud. Thus, there are millions of ways of being perceived as a foreigner. How do you choose where you want to belong or, on the other hand, where you are willing to be considered a tourist? How many choices do you actually have? And what if you end up in the wrong system? In that regard, birth can sort of suck.

They’ll tell you change is always possible. It is. Except one should make the appropriate choices as early as possible. The longer your history with the system, the less the explaining. OK, so maybe your good résumé or publication record can speak for themselves. But what if other applicants flaunt the exact same achievements? Perhaps you can argue that your work shows more grit because it was done in a poorer nation with far less access to resources, and no buddies working as editors in important journals. But that means an extra layer of explanation not many are willing to endure before making one of the dozens of decisions on their daily agendas. If it comes down to that, who do you think they’ll pick? Exactly. The less non-foreigner. Every single time.

Given that my parents would never have gone for anything but the local college, graduate school was probably where I made the worst mistake. Sure, I had heard the US seemed to absorb countless brain drains from elsewhere, but I didn’t know Science was just not a common career choice among the natives, way behind services, the stock market and reality shows. Although this is quite unkind, in many ways you can actually equate legal foreign scientists to illegal immigrants, both filling different needs.

In short, I thought the brain drain to the US was only about the very smart. It isn’t. Often it’s not even about the moderately smart. Of course there are tests, but I could have beaten myself into some mid-level program. A scholarship from home would have taken care of tuition and expenses, poor countries are often willing to invest resources to train their brightest young in the best foreign lands of wisdom, even if few of them ever return. So, in essence, the poor actually pay to get poorer. I realized all this, not due to any sort of awakening, but because, by staying on as a graduate student and teaching assistant at my alma mater, I saw plenty of younger candidates who had worse college experiences do exactly that. And come back for vacation with that smirk of arrogance on their shiny faces. But by then I had already enrolled, committed to a project, nailed myself in.

Please don’t get me wrong. We may not have had all the resources, but we certainly had enough. More than I saw in many labs in Australia, probably as much as would be available at my new US job. Perhaps we lacked critical mind mass, given that many of our best brains were elsewhere. More than equipment and money are needed to answer interesting questions, let alone ask them. But even that doesn’t explain anything: the institute I worked at had two papers in Nature, one in Science, one in Cell. It can be done. The flip side of this is also true: many of those who went abroad did poorly. But the thing was, they were already in the system.

Bottom line? I screwed up. Royally. A year into the program a group in the US (of course!) published work that nullified much of my thesis plan, making it totally irrelevant. You don’t want to be the second discoverer of anything, and gears needed to be switched. In so doing I managed to argue with my supervisor every inch of the way. In the end she came up with the ultimate trump card. Hierarchy. Now here is something that still carries much more weight than it’s supposed to, everyone knows that. But few do anything about it, lest their own independence or authority be questioned. In the end, she was the Professor, I was the graduate student. Her way, or no way. Finish or quit.

So I finished. It took longer, and wasn’t that much of an impressive piece of work. It was OK, professional, certainly average. But mediocrity is an odd thing, mainly because it is not all-out awfulness. If it were, it could be stopped, flunked. Its relentless quality, so to speak, allows a smooth continuous flow. The quiet triumph of the unspectacular.

I would have done just about anything to board a leaky boat out of there right after the committee gave me their final nod of approval.


Where do all the steps lead? Where do all the crowds go? It’s a rhetorical question. They follow arrows and obey instructions, like good herds should. And, whatever the circumstances, we all need to be part of one.

Much as I didn’t get the results I expected from graduate school, and even considering the bonus nausea of seeing all the mistakes I made by watching others not make them, I must admit that life was fun, and my training solid. I wouldn’t have done well in Melbourne (and I did do well) if not for that. Together with my test insecurities, that was what kept me there. It may not have been the system I ultimately wanted to fit in, but it was what I knew. Because it was such a happy time, there isn’t much to write about. Typical. Misery always seems to need the company of better words, happiness is bland. Not necessarily for lack of drama or conflict, but because you are too busy living it.


You can follow the neat lines of people in your head. Parading themselves through ribbon corridors patterned in the huge hall. Marching to one end, advancing one step, marching to the other. Trying not to step on the person in front, not be overtaken by the one behind. The final destination hidden by rows of heads, hands clasping forms as individual idle chatters turn into a muffled roar. Babel incarnate waiting to be delivered. Do they realize that the same corridors are cherished by people who just stay?

It was the schooling that came before that was a nightmare. Not because of girls and teachers and bullies, but for more mundane reasons. Like not knowing what I wanted to be thirty years from then. It mattered little that many of my friends who wanted to become doctors and lawyers and engineers and homemakers and actors and writers and heirs, in the end actually didn’t (others did). At least even those who failed had some sort of certainty. A goal. Others might not have such concrete endings in mind, but still had something. Getting top grades for a few, merely finishing for others. I had an interest in science, and a much stronger urge of being perceived as successful. Not necessarily being successful, that I could sort of live without. So the urge poked me on, while the interest gave me a direction to move on to. Or away from.

High school was also a time of reckoning. As some friends went to private schools beyond the means of my family, slowly their homes became off limits, the fences and armed guards that had kept us all safe now keeping me out. Nothing deliberate about it, friendships end. Except it felt like I had never really noticed the walls before. At the same time new friends finally made it obvious that the slums and shantytowns nested on the hills and under the nooks and crannies of highway passes were not really the playful camping sites put together like juvenile construction projects gone amok, but actually living places where people my age didn’t usually live very long. What the walls kept out.

I know, how naïve. Except my family feared the slums with tense smiles of despair, as if they were one bad debt away from them. And thus, as reasonable people often do, ignored their existence. Ignored it in an almost fearlessly profound sort of way, commenting on the most vile pieces of local news as if it were broadcast via satellite from somewhere else in the universe, with no bearing on our lives whatsoever. Grandmother would pick up an orange, a tangerine, whatever easily dividable citrus fruit was available, mock bless it as the priests did around Easter, and share it with everyone present, a blessing on the inside, a border. When confronted with the unchallengeable fact that blaring sirens were screeching down our street the family comfortably slipped on their alternative weapon. Rationalization. Other people got what they deserved, if the evil in the world had to be siphoned somewhere, it might as well be where it already existed in abundance. As a person interested in science my gut told me all this could neither be ignored, nor rationalized. But my family had conditioned me all too well. So I did the next best thing.

I ran.


It takes a few hours, but people start coming in. The microphone volume gets turned up, documentation is everything. As well as boring.

And that pretty much sums it up. There was childhood, I guess. Uneventful, irrelevant. Unremembered. The time it took me to realize that running was what I needed to do. Adolescence the place to develop the necessary tools, adulthood the moment to use them.

It took a while, a few detours. But today I waited patiently in line. The flight was calm, besides the more thorough security checks, the only odd feature were the anxious looks that seemed to follow everyone everywhere, from the ticket counter to the arrival hall. After a catastrophe the air is not only filled with sorrow, but also guilt. Which, in turn, seems to attract blame, and blame needs little to latch on to. If you look like you could be blamed, you will be. So all over the airport people looked guilty for trying too hard not to look guilty.

Like any seasoned traveler I know that the key is trying to make oneself as invisible as possible. Have all the paperwork at hand, be quiet and confident, leave the sarcasm and jokes at the gate. I had been here before, now I was staying, that was the only difference, knowledge that kept me confident for the forty minutes it took to get to the booth. After that things became somewhat of a blur.

The officer had the usual serious, clean, portly look. His manicured hands ruffled my passport and visa paperwork, eyes darting between them and an invisible computer screen, not once glancing up. You are not a person, you are a number. I kept my blank stare up to the point the official stood up and looked around for something. A supervisor. If there is ever a universal sign of trouble, this is it.

Although he was of a different ethnicity altogether, the second official felt like a clone of the first, such is the power of civil service. The same motions with the documentations, the same non-glances towards its owner. Low whispers, nods. And, finally, both looked up with a verdict.

My work permit will have to be reviewed. Back home. What the US embassy staff had told me yesterday on the phone was irrelevant. It’s a general thing, all such visas are under closer scrutiny now, nothing against myself in particular. The words sound right, but their tense cheeks are dead giveaways I totally missed. The only thing I understood is that, although now a person in the eyes of these officials, I have somehow become the wrong kind of person. There is another flight waiting across the way, tomorrow I have appointments all over. This was not in the script.

I have a tourist visa as well, can I enter the country using that? Not anymore. I gave up that right when handing over the work permit paperwork to the first officer. Using another means of entry is no longer an option, could be considered a ruse. I still don’t get it, press on. Does this mean I could have gotten through on my tourist visa if I hadn’t been honest enough to show the other one? It does. But, in that case, I wouldn’t have been able sign any work- related papers, apply for social security or medical benefits. For that I needed the other visa, to go home again. Going home quickly becoming a mantra. Which home?

Although I can sense restlessness all around I foolishly don’t feel defeated. The tourist visa lasts 90 days. Ninety. That’s three months, at least ten different major news stories. Isn’t it possible that, within that immense period, things will become more reasonable, that the other visa could be worked out? The officers exchange glances, and, for the first time, openly disagree. Not at all, probably quite the opposite. The system has changed. And I have committed the ultimate sin of insensitivity. Except this is something I could never believe I would do, and, at that time, still don’t believe I’ve done. There must be other reasons behind all this legal jungle where each trail closes as I try to pry it open.

Am I less worthy because I’m not a Vietnamese refugee fleeing the only Great Defeat? A Cuban floating away to Florida? An ex-communist from Europe come to pay respects to the Conqueror? A genuinely poor persecuted victim of war, disease, famine? How does one grade these things? Is there a points system for country, age, sex, ethnicity, social status, religion, political beliefs? How many points for what? Would it help if I came from the slums in Rio?

No. For terror or tourism the right papers are needed. The careful blank face and pleasant persona I constructed while in line suddenly crumble. And so does any effort at guarded civility from the Immigration Officials. This is not the time for an argument. But I still try to make it, screaming as four of them drag me away, forever on the wrong side. I can hear cameras flash as the crowd roars in a mixture of amusement and fear, before dissolving away into empty halls.


The shift changes, as the camera keeps filming. In the end, everyone leaves.

And here I am. In an empty room in limbo. One of those closed doors you never notice on the rush from plane to customs. While being locked in I grumbled some insults in my own language, which was the last obvious mistake. As I learned later, anything can sound Arabic, or whatever the unfavored tongue may be at any given time.

Officers keep coming in at regular intervals. Offering, in the proper order, silence, a small notebook and pen, coffee, a bathroom break; but mostly questions. Apparently even a trip home is not automatic at this point. There seem to be two or three of these people, different sexes, ages and colors, but I remain unable to tell them apart. I know what they are trying to do. By now they must have contacted everyone there is to contact. But talk about your mundane world to a willing listener that won’t utter an extra word long enough and you’ll end up confessing some deep secret, even if just to break the silence. Except this is one of my favorite topics, my only relevant secret is not so secret. I wanted to be here, just not exactly this here. Some of the officials seem to empathize, except empathy won’t re-write my doomed papers.

Then pictures taken by fellow travelers as I was being dragged away make it to the outside world. Point, shoot and share, that’s what tourists do, nothing to take personally. As people, its amazing the amount of things we are supposed not to take personally. At any rate, reality has been made, it needs to be dealt with. Incompetent responsible people need to assure incompetent mobs that both are safe. At first I remain calmly bewildered. Although I would probably pass for an Arab in Scandinavia, I just had a catholic annulment. But these people know the lengths people go through to fake belonging. And the system can mold anything foreign, until it represents the foreignness it needs it to represent. Perhaps, people in press conferences will note, my whole life has been a ruse leading up to this, from malcontent graduate student to airport threat, with stops in secret training camps somewhere in the Outback.

Meanwhile, it seems I can be held for months, in places that probably will have me longing for airports. Somehow I sense that asking for a lawyer or diplomatic counsel would be the only thing that would make everyone in the room laugh heartily. This is as good as it comes. It may actually get worse, if my not-yet employers decide to rescind their offer, going through my life with a fine-toothed comb, something no saint would be comfortable with, let alone a guy who only has saint for a last name.

As the pen fades out I finally notice that I am not totally alone. There is a plate on the table. An orange. Did it just materialize, was it always there? Have I unconsciously fiddled with it, wondering about its pungent, unwashable, smell? It could well have traveled as far as myself, perhaps even farther. Only to be left to rot in an empty room with no purpose, innocuous as only a piece of fruit can be. But purpose can be found in many different guises. And I am still hungry.

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© 2008 João Ramalho-Santos

The author dedicates this story to Tanja Dominko.

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