I looked down at my 'US Customs & Border Protection' form: it didn't look good.
Passport issuing country: UK
Country of residence: Japan
Countries visited on this trip prior to the USA: Canada, UK, China
Purpose of trip: Business
Clearly, I had been rallying an international army and the 'business' I had planned likely involved your maker.
My suspicion regarding this interpretation had precedence: almost exactly one year previously, I had been held at the border in New York because my passport red flagged due to frequent trips to the USA in the past. An exciting 'Mastermind' round had ensued where I was forced to recall each and every port I had previously entered the United States (wildly guessed), think of a non-sarcastic reason for not carrying my expired passport with its voided visas (culturally difficult), and was told next time, I should apply for a tourist visa (blatantly ignored).
The problem with the last suggestion was that getting a USA visa takes months of planning, time and money. As I was visiting for only one week and shouldn't actually have needed a visa, it did not seem worth the effort. Since this blasé attitude might not have held up while in shackles, I had made a few preparations:
Firstly, I was entering through Canada. Routes from Canada to the USA arrive as domestic flights, with border control passed inside the Canadian airport. Previous experience had taught me this was generally a less harrowing experience than border control in a USA airport.
Secondly, I was carrying a letter of invitation from Columbia University. In truth, the professor I was visiting had knocked up a fake letterhead on his laptop from home, but it looked pretty good.
Finally, I had allowed for the border control guard finding a career in astrophysics an unlikely and laughable affair, and had arrived several hours early. In my mind, my flight information sheet read: Please arrive for your flight with sufficient time for check-in and a short prison stay.
The latter point was the risk in this whole operation. While being held up for a few hours inside the USA was annoying, if the same happened here, I might miss my flight entirely. However, I had a contingency plan for that too:
It involved saying 'screw you' and heading to a bar in Toronto.
After hauling my case through the queue and agreeing whole heartedly with the baby blowing raspberries ahead of me, I was called up to the desk.
"What were you doing in Canada?"
"Canada?" I confirmed in slight surprise. Not... the USA? Apparently that was less important. "I was visiting the university."
"Teaching?" The border control guard flicked through the stamps in my passport.
"Research," I replied with a slight shrug designed to imply this was same ballpark within a selection pool that might include rounding up geese for terrorist action.
"And you live in Japan?"
Here we go. I took a deep breath.
"Yes," I replied, placing my hand on my carry-on where my letter of invitation was stored along with my Japanese residence card.
"Ahh, I'd like to live in Japan."
"The people are always so nice. I see all the passports," the border guard continued, a slightly reminiscent look in his eyes. "The Japanese are always so polite. They have honour!"
Well. Uh. Great.
"Do you teach there too?"
"I... yes," I said, feeling decidedly caught off guard.
"I used to be a math teacher," my new BFF replied, stamping my passport. "But now I do this."
"Why?" I asked, my curiosity piqued as I took back my documents (without ever being asked about my stay in the USA). Border control hardly seemed the most logical step in the educational career track, and I couldn't imagine the USA were so overrun with maths teachers to mean this guy had been made redundant.
The guard shrugged. "This is easier. And I don't need a gun here in Canada."
Oh. My. Good. God.
"... right," I said with a slightly stunned squeak. "Um. Think about Japan."
I scuttled through the gates and dropped off my checked bag before heading for security. Unloading the potential bomb threats onto the plastic trays (laptop, shoes, suspiciously baggy sweater...), I handed my boarding pass to the assistant. He glanced at the paper and then at the passport still clutched in my hand.
"Can I see that?" he asked urgently. I passed over the little booklet but rather than flicking through the pages, he looked at the front cover. "Who won?" he demanded.
... won? Is there normally a fight to get to this stage? Given my previous dealings with the USA boarder, this wasn't completely impossible.
"Scotland?" he flapped his hand impatiently. "Did they vote 'yes' or 'no' for independence?"
Was he suggesting that I might need a new passport? Brief scenes from the movie 'The Terminal' with Tom Hanks flashed across my mind. I could be here a while.
"They voted no," I said hastily. "My passport is good."
"Good job," the assistant said. "They'd just start Quebec off again."
And on that rather un-pc note, I was free to go to my gate. While picking up a bottle of cola for the flight, I spotted a cuddly version of the first 'My Little Pony' my Dad had bought me when I was five years old. It had been a reward for being brave at the doctors (an event I remember with sufficient clarity to know it was utterly undeserved) and began a multi-year obsession with equine pastel coloured plastic. I bought it. It was perhaps a sign I should return to the less cynical expectations of my youth.