July 27, 2007

"Why don’t you lot just grow up?"

Around the end of the first week of Ramadan this year will be my sixth anniversary of living here in Asia, insha'allah. (Scary how the time has flown by.) My original plan was just to live here for a year or two before going home. However, one thing led to another - as they usually do - and now I'm here more or less permanently. I've no plans to return to the U.S. anytime soon, but I often think about it. I've heard a couple of horror stories about people - Americans - returning back to the US after living in or even just briefly visiting other countries abroad, and I wonder what type of reception Milady and I would get if we went to the U.S. (Both of us are Muslim, of course, and Milady always wears a tudung in public.)

What follows is an excerpt from a post at Crooks and Liars where an American citizen had a layover at LAX while on a flight from London to New Zealand. The comments by the passenger named Derek are especially appropriate.

I moved from Great Britain to New Zealand last week, requiring a flight of 26 hours crammed into a big metal tube with about four hundred other brave souls, the vast majority of us packed into the Economy Class part of a 747, with the usual narrow seats, no leg rests, and poor overheated air ventilation that inevitably leads to sharing every virus on board with everyone else. I dropped at least half my on-board meals down my cleavage trying to eat with elbows pressed together, my ankles swelled to the size (and shape) of a small elephant’s, my calves were a mass of cramps, my eyes throbbed from trying to watch too many movies on a tiny screen eight inches from my nose, my back ached from trying to sleep at twisted, unnatural angles, and my throat tickled with what I knew would end up being a full blown head cold. No, long-haul flights are not fun. People take them because it’s about the only way to get where they really, really want to go. And I really, really wanted to go to New Zealand.

At least there was a chance for a small break once we’d landed in Los Angeles to change flight crews, restock the food galleys and drinks trolleys and refuel the plane, a chance to stretch our legs in the transit lounge and take a breath of fresh air. So you would think…

And you would be so wrong.

We were told to disembark with all our carry-on luggage, leaving nothing on board. Those who were flying from London to Auckland were told to line up against a wall in a corridor while those whose flights terminated at Los Angeles filed past and disappeared. And there, in a hot, cramped corridor we stood and waited. And waited. And waited. I finally couldn’t stand it, and asked where to find the ladies’ loo – to be ordered not to leave the line. (Sod that, thought I, or rather, my bladder) and I wandered up the queue to discover that we were being processed, slowly, one by one, by a single officer in a tiny booth. After a quick dash to a toilet, I made my way back down the line to where I’d left my new comrades-in-arms – Judy, a petite, smartly dressed 61-year-old Kiwi schoolteacher in London on compassionate leave going home to Auckland to see her terminally ill father, and Derek, a wiry Scots engineer with an acerbic sense of humour. ‘You bloody Yanks seem to think terrorism is something new and only ever happens to Americans,’ he groused to me. Being possibly the only bloody Yank going from London to New Zealand, I became by default the sole available representative for my fellow countrymen. ‘We’ve had the IRA and the French have the Algerians and the Spanish have ETA. Now you know what the rest of Europe’s been living with for the last few hundred years. Why don’t you lot just grow up?’ Heads around us nodded in irritated agreement.

To our relief, we were finally moved out of the corridor, all following another LAX official to what we were expecting to be the transit lounge… but to our collective dismay, we were herded into a bigger Immigration area, where all those who were not US passport holders filled out long green cards asking detailed personal information, to be handed over to US Immigration officials busy taking everyone’s fingerprints and photographs. There was some confusion about just what to do with me, as I was a US citizen, but was flying on to New Zealand. Eventually, I was given a shorter blue form to fill out. A couple of students with worried expressions – Germans, I think, judging from the language – were being led away by uniformed police who were having interpretation problems. It was a very repressive and rather frightening atmosphere.

Bear in mind here… we were all ‘non-stop’ transit passengers, due to get straight back on the same plane we’d just gotten off and fly on to Auckland, never setting foot outside the airport and onto American soil.

Judy, in her strong Kiwi accent, demanded from one of the officials standing guard around us why they needed to take our fingerprints or our photographs. ‘It’s the law,’ he mumbled, a bit shamefaced, and spouted a few disconnected bits of pre-memorized clichés about terrorism and security before stuttering to a halt and looking away. Not even the officials at the airport understood why.

The Immigration official at the booth was not so polite to her. ‘Take your glasses off,’ he demanded. I could see her stiffen, an elderly respectable schoolteacher unused to being so brusquely ordered around. ‘I beg your pardon? Why do I need to take my glasses off? What right do you have to take my fingerprints or my photograph?’

Again, came the refrain. ‘It’s the law’.

We finally were allowed, once we’d all been ‘processed’, to sit down and have a cup of tea or coffee in the transit lounge… for about fifteen minutes before they reloaded the plane. Judy looked angry and close to tears. ‘I’ve never been treated like this before,’ she said. ‘It’s all one thing when you read about it, but having to actually submit to being fingerprinted? I feel… violated. Like I’m some sort of criminal.’

Would she ever consider returning to the States, as a tourist?

Absolutely not. And the next time she flew from London to Auckland, she’d make damned sure the flight did not stop to refuel in America.

This was pretty much the general feeling of every passenger on that flight – none of them had ever intended to enter the United States; it was just a place they had to wait in transit to somewhere else. But their experience had soured them on even considering the States as a potential holiday spot to visit. It didn’t matter how cheap the US dollar got.

And they have friends and families, too. Some people don’t like it when their 61-year-old mothers are treated like potential al Qaeda terrorists.

While the rest of the world is enjoying a boom in tourism, and our own tourist industry is begging the government for a let-up on such draconian policies, the abysmal way we are treating air passengers – even those who have nothing to do with visiting America as tourists – is costing the country millions of dollars a day, our reputation as debased as our currency.

We are not becoming a police state.

We are one.

In the comments left at C&L was a piece of goods news, especially with regard to Singapore:

In the future, fly through Singapore or Hong Kong to London to avoid LAX. LAX is notorious and the experience is always universally bad. Just what nobody needs on a long transcontinental haul. Depending on the transit time through Singapore, you can get a tour of the city, go swimming at the airport, or even take a hotel room inside the air terminal.


dramamama said...

Salam JD.

Whenever I travel to the US, I always get stopped by the immigration officer. They will demand to know why I'm there, for how long I'll be there and they'll want to see my return ticket - hard when you have an e-ticket. They are always very brusque and some are even rude but they all aim to be intimidating. Perhaps it's a power trip?

The funny thing is, I never get that type of treatment when I travel to communist states ;)

JDsg said...

A power trip? Probably. The "Little Hitler Syndrome." The questions they ask you aren't so unusual; I suspect it's the tone of voice and attitude they show to the travelers that makes them so off-putting.

Milady got a kick out of your "communist states" comment.