"American border guards," I explained to my student as we boarded the aeroplane for New York City. "have a reputation for being … " I searched for a word that would describe the situation sufficiently to avoid surprise, but not so descriptively that leaping from the plane as it rolled down the runway would be appealing. "… not very nice," I concluded lamely.
"What should I do?" It was my companion's first time in the USA and this first test was bound to cause some concern.
"Just be nice yourself," I told him firmly. "You'll be asked lots of questions, but it'll be OK."
"Be nice?" came the confused request for clarification.
"Trust me, it's a challenge," I muttered as we found our seats.
Twelve hours later I stood watching anxiously as the hope for most of my research work approached the border control desk. He placed his passport and crisp new student visa papers on the counter which were sucked away by a shadowy figure hidden by the camera equipment. Concerns and scenarios whipped through my brain:
- Did we have all the right paperwork?
- If we didn't, how would we get hold of anyone at Columbia University on the Sunday of a holiday weekend?
- Would the guard speak English clearly enough to be understood?
- If he wasn't understood, would he get impatient and clap the young man before him in irons and lead him away?
- Could an emotionally scarred student still be an effective research tool?
- Were we at the point where it is acceptable for me to step over the 'STOP' line and offer assistance?
Then… it was done. Within only a couple of minutes, my student was walking through the gates and into the luggage reclaim room. He didn't seem to be shackled or bowed over any more than before he'd started writing his research paper. It was a miracle!
I moved with a spring in my step as I was beckoned forward and presented my own passport for inspection.
"How are you doing today?"
Heaven help us all: it was a friendly border control guard! I wondered where he had been transferred from and how long he would last before becoming a embittered zombie shell.
"Why are you visiting the United States?"
"I'm visiting Columbia University for two weeks," I explained in some relief. "That was my student who came through before me."
"Ah, you teach astronomy?"
This guy remembered what my student had said and used the (infinitely safer) term 'astronomy' rather than 'astro--nuclear fusion is fun--physics'. He had let the student with a long-stay visa into the country and was now faced with his supervisor; a fully employed individual from an allied nation with a return plane ticket for 14 days time. It would be the easiest border crossing ever! My passport slid through the scanner like a hot knife through butter.
"… Will you come with me? We just need to confirm a few things."
And continued through the butter to stab the Queen's favourite corgi in the gut.
Suspecting the question to be rhetorical, I shot my student a reassuring smile as I followed the guard through baggage reclaim. I lifted up a finger to imply I'd only be a minute: a statement that was proved to be composed of the right quantity but the wrong unit of time. Then I was ushered into a room full of hard plastic chairs and too many file cases balanced on the desk. It was a good job I was still holding my kindle.
40 minutes later, I was halfway through a chapter about a girl fighting a giant baboon god in Waterloo Station and feeling thoroughly envious of this character's minor issues. My impassioned speech (to be delivered atop the plastic chairs) regarding the risk-free nature of a visitor from a country with a social welfare system and a decided lack of guns had been through several mental renditions, all of which had ended with American passports being sold for under a dollar on eBay and no one pointing out that I was the one trying to enter the USA.
Then my name was called.
I tried to compress my speech into a single concise phrase that could be mistakenly summarised as 'please let me into your country, oh most wondrous guard ' as I walked to the desk.
"Do you have a letter from Columbia confirming your visit?"
"I'm afraid I don't. Faculty don't normally prepare such documents since visits between universities are quite common."
And frankly, academics are never that formal unless you threaten to cut their research budget. I did have a student. Perhaps he could be interrogated to help practice his English... ehm, that is, confirm my situation? I offered up my Japanese identification cards to prove I was gainfully employed in a country with a good health care system. That was as close as my masterful soliloquy would come to being presented to the world.
"What are you a professor of?"
And if you screwed that subject up in high school, that is SO NOT MY FAULT. Also, I have 30 ninety minute lectures ready to go on this laptop if you'd like proof.
"You travel to the United States a great deal."
A change of tack: how cowardly. What was more, it was a surprising statement since I actually haven't travelled to the USA that often in the last few years. I'd been employed in the country full-time for 5 years back until 2009, but since then it had been only the occasional visit, with the last two being separated by more than 12 months.
I highlighted this history, listed airports at which I'd previously annoyed border guards and mentioned my last visit was actually to see a Canadian and so didn't really count at all.
"Next time you visit you should get a tourist visa from the USA embassy."
"I can do that?" This was new information since I'd assumed that countries on the visa waiver program couldn't apply for a specific tourist visa. That said, since appointments with the USA embassy typically took in excess of one month to arrange, this was not the biggest tourist pitch I had encountered. I debated whether land borders would give less hassle, if I could just assume I would spend an hour being interrogated in all future visits or if meetings semaphored across Niagara Falls might not be feasible.
My audience over, the border guard lost interest in this gnat before him and left me and my idiotic question alone. I gathered up my documents and fled to hug my luggage like a long lost multicoloured pet with too many zippers. My student was patiently sitting on his suitcase, having concluded that all these threats about American border control clearly applied only to me.
We left the airport and piled our suitcases into a taxi cab's trunk, before collapsing on the backseat. The worst was clearly over: what else was there to worry about for either of us?
"…. the speed limit is lower in Japan."
I cracked an eye to see my student white faced, nervously checking his seatbelt. Huh. Perhaps should have mentioned New York City cab drivers.
"It's probably the same," I reassured him. "This guy's just ignoring it while he talks on his cell phone."
Well, he didn't get held up in American security for an hour. I'm calling that comment karma.