Cornell University wants to know if I am a resident of the Neutral Zone. Seriously. The question appeared the other day when I was filling out an on-line recommendation for a student applying to graduate school at Cornell. After inserting my name and affiliation, I came to one of the ubiquitous pull-down menus with a list of countries and territories, asking me to select my land of residence. I find such menus amusing, as many of the entries are uninhabited and essentially uninhabitable islands. Has anyone ever selected the sub-Antarctic Heard and McDonald Islands or the French Southern Territories? The occasional nod to hypercorrect nomenclature is also comical; why does Cornell want to know if I am from the Libyan Arab Jamahirya rather than just Libya? Such absurdities are common most geographical pull-down menus. But the Neutral Zone, on Cornell’s list, is something else altogether.
Finding the Neutral Zone reminded me of Star Trek — as if Cornell wants to know whether my allegiance falls elsewhere than the United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire, or the Romulan Star Empire. Wikipedia gives ten entries for “Neutral Zone,” three of which pertain to sports, one to control theory, one to railroads, three to Star Trek, and two to geography. Cornell did not specify which of the two geographical neutral zones I might have been from: the Saudi-Iraqi Neutral Zone or the Saudi-Kuwaiti Neutral Zone. When they appeared on mid-twentieth century maps, neither was inhabited, and both, in any event, have long since ceased to exist. The Saudi-Iraqi Neutral Zone was divided between the two countries in 1991, while the same happened to the Saudi-Kuwaiti Neutral Zone in 1970. It is thus rather unlikely that Cornell will be receiving many letters of recommendation from Neutral Zonian professors.
Cornell is by no means the only institution to make such nonsensical inquiries. Georgetown University also asks about residency in uninhabited islands, and bizarrely lists the South Ryukyu Islands, an integral part of Japan, as a separate entity, which is much like separating the Hawaiian Islands from the United States. Hotel registration menus can be equally fun. San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel gives one the choice of selecting “China,” “South China,” or “other China” — and Taiwan as well.
The mother of all geographical pull-down menus may well be that maintained by the CIA World Factbook, labeled “select a country or location.” The CIA’s inclusion of uninhabited, dependent territories is appropriate, as is its goal is to provide information, not to register residency. I do wonder, however, whether such sandy specks as the Ashmore and Cartier Islands merit inclusion in their own right. The most amusing aspect of the list, however, is the manner in which it treats Taiwan. Although the list is otherwise strictly alphabetical, Taiwan comes after Zambia and Zimbabwe. Such a maneuver signals Taiwan’s ambiguous geopolitical situation in an equally ambiguous manner.