Through The Eyes of a Stranger: Bureaucracy

I don’t think I will surprise anybody if I tell you that the Soviet bureaucracy was a daunting, horrible, unmanageable affair. It existed as a way of income redistribution because you were supposed to offer bribes for every little slip of paper you needed (and you needed them to do pretty much anything.) In this way, people who were lucky enough to have the rubber-stamping privileges could augment their paltry incomes.

When I arrived in Canada at the age of 22, I was shocked to discover that North American bureaucracy was also a daunting, horrible, unmanageable affair. It was even more so, since it couldn’t be obviated through bribes. It existed as a force of nature that couldn’t be coaxed or persuaded to listen to reason.

As soon as I came to Canada, I applied to McGill University. I had done 4 years of university studies before, but I didn’t want the university to give me transfer credits. I was planning to start a new program and do it from start to finish. Still, since the university asked for my Ukrainian transcript, I dutifully provided it together with a notarized translation from Ukrainian made in Canada by a Canadian translator. I’m from Ukraine, you see, which means that all paperwork in my country is done in the only official language of the country, namely, Ukrainian.

In a while, a bureaucrat from the admissions office asked me in for a meeting.

“We can’t process your file,” she said. “You need to provide the originals of the transcripts in Russian.”

“Why Russian?” I asked. It could have just as easily been Chinese or Yoruba because these three languages are equally not used for official paperwork in my country.

“Because we don’t have a person who can understand this,” she snickered and threw the Ukrainian papers in my general direction.

“This is Ukrainian,” I explained. “My country’s only official language. Our universities don’t give out transcripts in the official languages of other countries.”

“Well, then we can’t process your file because nobody understands the original in our office.”

Montreal has a huge Ukrainian community, so I suggested that we contact any of the community leaders to confirm my transcript. The most ridiculous thing about the situation was that the transcript was irrelevant since I was not asking for any transfer credits. The bureaucrat refused to do that.

I knew at that point that if they accepted me, I was going to become one of their best students ever. I was right. I later became a straight A, Special Honors, Dean’s Honor List, and every award under the sun kind of student. Years after I graduated, the Department of Hispanic Studies was papered with articles with the photos of me receiving awards from ambassadors and consuls of Spanish-speaking countries for my academic excellence.

So I was sitting in front of the bureaucrat practically in tears, incapable of understanding why I was being denied acceptance to a university because my country’s official language was not the one they approved of.

Suddenly, a woman who was passing by the bureaucrat’s table (and who later turned out to be a Full Professor and a very respected person on campus) stopped and asked,

“Why is this child crying?”

I explained the situation. The woman took my transcript, read it and confirmed to the bureaucrat that it said exactly what my notarized translation purported it said. The bureaucrat was afraid of contradicting her, and I was accepted to the university. I was also awarded transfer credits which made it impossible for me to take all the courses I wanted.

17 thoughts on “Through The Eyes of a Stranger: Bureaucracy”

  1. This is very close to a situation I am going through at UVic right now!
    My official transcripts from America say that I already took elementary and intermediate Japanese, and should be accepted into the top classes. But apparently they cannot determine whether it is equivalent, since we used different textbooks, so I cannot be accepted into the top class.
    So I relented and enrolled in elementary Japanese, figuring it would be the chance for me to get the very best grades in the class and maybe show that I was ready for higher levels. But now they’re telling me that since I took a class like that at UM, it’s “duplicate” credit that won’t count, so I’ll be taking it for nothing.
    I hope I run into a Deus Ex Machina of a professor like you did, and soon. 😦


    1. As somebody who teaches languages, I find this appalling. Elementary and Intermediate language courses are all the same, irrespective of which textbooks you use. This is absolutely ridiculous. At my school, we offer students a placement test in the foreign language they want to take. If they place into, say, Spanish Advanced 1, we give the credits for Spanish Elementary 1 and 2 and Spanish Intermediate 1 and 2 on the spot. For free. Because anyhting other than that makes no sense.

      Have you talked to the instructors at the department?


      1. I’m talking with one of them right now, and she’s being really friendly and helpful, and says that she’s willing to give me special face-to-face instruction in 101 so I don’t get bored. Unfortunately, the top class filled up, so I’m stuck in it, even though there’s a placement test. That will at least restore my pride.
        It’s good to know the professor is on my side, even if the administrative people are being a pain.


  2. I would think that you could just ask for an interview with one of the Japanese speaking professors. Call their office and leave a message for a call back in Japanese. The return call should settle things fairly quickly.

    Here are some things that worked for me.

    1. My wife was denied a professional license on the basis that she didn’t have the appropriate degree. We made a spreadsheet showing the required courses for the degree and listed her credits for all similar courses from the 14 universities that she has attended. Since she has 360 credit hours it was not hard to impress the committee.

    2. I had to prove 3rd year competency in Portuguese for a graduate Linguistics course. I took an article out of a current edition of a professional business journal, translated it into English for the roadblock professor in real time in his office. For some reason, he accepted it despite the fact that he couldn’t read Portuguese! I guess he thought that if I was bluffing I was able to present a coherent bluff.

    3. This week my wife was told by a department secretary that since she didn’t have an undergraduate degree in the field that she is entering for a masters, she had to take 2 non-credit elementary undergrad courses at $1,000 each as preparation. She protested based on having a 94 and High Distinction grade in a graduate course in the field at an Australian technical university. She also explained that she works with the material on a daily basis and consults with various national governments on the topic and gave some phone #s for references. She got an email back retracting the requirement the next day.


  3. If Victor Fedorovych has his way, Russian will soon be the official language of Ukraine and all your problems will be solved. Please don’t ban me 😉


    1. Great story! I know somebody who when she is mistreated by a bureaucrat, always says, “Please call your supervisor and inform them that I’m about to cause a scene.” This usually helps. 🙂


    2. It seems to me to be both racist and bullying. She asked if you understood English. Obviously, brown people don’t speak English. They speak foreign, or something like that. And that is part of what makes you an available target for bullying. The other thing that makes you a target is that she thinks you need her imprimatur to get your money. I find that very few undergrads working for a university understand customer service or that their job depends on the money that you bring to the university. They need to be educated…that’s why they are in school. Unfortunately, the best educational tool, being fired, is seldom used at the university level. I really like Clarissa’s suggestion and especially the wording. Asking for a supervisor and then for the supervisor’s supervisor usually works quite well in this country. Sometimes not, but usually.


  4. Oh yes, I now know the supervisor line. I had absolutely no idea then that this was the magic mantra that gets most recalcitrant employees to work. Also, in my city, the supervisor is usually completely pro-employee in the face of complaints, so that path of resistance just didn’t occur to me. Next time =)

    BTW, Diego, lovely to meet you. Are you new on this blog, or have I, true to form, forgotten previous interactions?


      1. And I am very happy to have found you all. I live outside a town of 2,000 in a poor, rural, but extremely beautiful, part of western Colorado about 300 miles from Denver. Finding intelligent people with whom I can converse about events is very difficult. For the past 5 years I have been limited to telephone calls with my wife and bi-weekly lunches with a Costa Rican professor/friend who teaches at the local university 60 miles away.

        The breadth of experience of contributors to this blog is astounding. I am used to being the only one in a conversation who has been anywhere in the world outside of the US, or comprehends any language other than English. People I work with think I am weird because I am about to get my 5th passport and the others are all full of stamps and decades of memories. But who needs to travel when you live in the best country in the world with the best health system, the smartest people, the best sports, the best beer, the best cars, the best films, the best tv shows, and the best language. Is it possible to be the best language when there are only two; English and foreign? Maybe I should have said “the better language”.

        Rimi, I see that you are from West Bengal. My mother lived in Bangalore between 1975 and 1985. She left after the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi because the situation seemed too chaotic. For her it was like the assassination of John Kennedy and the ensuing decade of chaos here in the US.

        Thank you, everyone, for your welcome.


        1. We do have an occasional troll from time to time but, for the most part, we have a really great group of people reading and/or commenting regularly here. It makes me feel very proud that my blog, which I initially expected to have 5 readers at most, is attracting such fantastic, multi-faceted, intellectual people.

          Yay for blogging!


        2. Diego, I was born the year Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated. Not the kind of coincidences one laughs over, but there you are. What brought your mother to Bangalore? Or is she from the area?


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