I pretend to be an American

Standing in the immigration line for US citizens while clutching one of her Majesty's finest red passports did not seem the wisest of moves. In fact, it made me feel rather like this:


In truth, I had tried to join the queue for foreign passports holders but I had been plucked out and forced to be a fake American to make the lines balance better after my flight touched down in Seattle. 

"Are you American?"
"Whatever. You look like a rebel colonial with a problem with tea. Get in that line there."

... OK, so perhaps the conversation hadn't gone exactly like that. It had in reality involved asking anyone re-entering the United States with an ESTA (the USA's electronic visitor visa system) to switch into the shorter queue behind the non-fake Americans.  Since I had visited twice before on my current ESTA, I dutifully queue jumped.

But I still felt I shouldn't be there. And I wasn't the only one.

Instead of going to the border control desk, people in my queue stepped up to computer terminals like those for the auto-checkouts at the supermarket. We had a similar 'border express' system in the UK, where British passport holders could scan their passport, smile for the camera and be waved through.

(That was unless you were my mother, who has the abilities of a stealth bomber for any auto-security system and cannot be recognised by cameras or security light sensors. One day, our house is going to be filled with gold that she's stolen from the bank vaults, or crutches from her falling due to the patio light failing to illuminate the garden at night.) 

Being the US, this auto-checkout also included a finger print scanner, after which it printed a slip of paper with your details. When my slip came out of the machine, it was crossed through with a large black X.


Upon showing this to the invigilating boarder guard, I was piped through to a shorter queue for culling ... uh, the manned immigration desks. The guard there took my finger prints and photo again in case I'd bribed someone to take my place out of fear, and then turned his attention to my passport.  

"What are you doing in Seattle?"
"I'm attending an ... astrophysics ... meeting."
"OK, here's your passport."
"Um. Thanks."

Not that I was complaining, but the above declaration normally elicited a lot more questions, frequently in several separate rooms with threats of body cavity searches. However, the conference I was attending was the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society, and the biggest in the world for the field. Feasibly, this particular border control guard had already seen a thousand of my closest friends and associates that morning and 'astrophysicist' now seemed like the most overused line on the planet. 

I scuttled off in victory, skipped baggage claim since I was travelling light and headed for the exit.

... whereupon I was sent for a random customs check to demonstrate said light travelling was not because I intended to be high and drugged for the entire week. 

The customs guard looked down at my hand luggage and his jaw twitched. My backpack was decorated on the outside with 18 individually coloured zipped pockets.

"Hi," I said brightly. "I'm going to an astrophysics meeting."

For anyone in my field who went through customs after me, I can only apologise.