Kirk Ke Wang
When taking students studying abroad, I often stay last to make sure no one left behand before boarding a bus, a ferry or a subway. Students usually wait for me after passing the entrances.
I am a frequent international traveler and accustomed to airports and customs around the world. In fact, I was sort of secretly enjoying passing through the customs, particularly the customs of my own country, the United States of America. It gave me the pleasure of pride, when I waved my deep-blue passport towards a sign of “U.S. citizens/residents”, passing through arrays of envy eyes from the crowds who held foreign passports in various colors and waiting anxiously in a separated line. After a brief exchange about the reasons of my travels, the officers of the border control put stamps on my passport with a smile: “Welcome home!”. Their sweet words echoed my still-not-popped eardrums. Yes baby, home, sweet home!
Coping with numb legs and sleepy eyes, we deplaned the flight from Quito, Ecuador, where I took a group of college students for a service-learning trip during spring break. Despite arriving on time, we had a tight window to go through the customs at the Miami international airport and to change flight to Tampa. When all were in sight, I shepherded students towards the U.S. Customs.
In recent years, there are some new changes for the U.S. passport holders at the border controls. Instead of directly seeing the passport control officers, you first check-in at a computerized kiosk with a camera and touch screen. In other words, you are first greeted by a machine before seeing a live officer. If the machine approves you, you can enter the border without any further inspection. Efficiency? I guess.
On my turn, I stepped to a kiosk. The machine seemed more sophisticated yet somewhat intimidating. After inserting in my passport, the camera agilely moved up and down aiming to my face. Then my photo displayed on screen.
What a smart machine, I exclaimed. But my admiration of technology was short-lived.
As soon as my face appeared on the screen, the text was automatically switched into Spanish.
At first, I attempted to answer some of the questions. But soon I realized that I would be in a big trouble if I continued to answer those legal questions by guessing.
I called for help. Usually, there were someone nearby to help. But no one came. I now regretted that I didn’t take my Spanish 101, before this trip.
In panic, I hit the back-arrow key, trying to step backwards to the page with language options for English, or even for Chinese at the least.
At this time, the camera on the kiosk moved again, following the position of my head. Before I realized it, my face was captured once again on the screen. I was bewildered that maybe there was a real person hiding inside the machine.
I hit the back-arrow key fanatically, as if trying to poke the hidden man out of the kiosk.
Eventually, I found the English option key and finished the questionnaires. The machine spit out a sheet of paper with my photo on it.
I looked around, my students obtained their paper. I signaled them towards the customs and I followed.
On the heels of my students, as I was about entering the line signed US citizens/residents, a border patrol officer with a stern expression stopped me. She checked my paper and pointed me to a different direction where many people were waiting in the zigzag lines.
“I am an U.S. citizen and here is my passport!” I said.
“Your passport control paper has an X. So, you go to the other side.” She said bluntly.
I now eyed attentively at the paper generated by the machine, and indeed there was a big X on it. I looked my students who had almost passed the passport checking station.
“I am a college professor taking students traveling abroad and they are waiting for me to board another flight. If I go through the other line, I would be missing them! I am an U.S. citizen, and here is my passport!” I got a bit anxious and motioned her to the direction of my students.
“Your passport paper has an X and you need to wait in that line to be inspected by a passport control officer!” the lady voiced commandingly.
Reluctantly I followed the order, joining the crowd who were holding foreign passports and migration documentations.
I glimpsed the last shape of my students vanished in far distance at the area where U.S. citizens were not required to see a passport control officer. I am not sure if they noticed my separation from them. Just a few minutes ago, I was their guardian of knowledge and integrity, someone they trust and respect. Now I was the Citizen X, who were mandatorily required to be questioned and examined. I hoped they did not see my expressions of embarrassment and humiliation. If they did, what kind of thoughts would be behind their gazes when I meet them again in classrooms?
I began to blame the Ecuadorian scorching sun, which burned my face much darker after a few negligent of putting up the sunscreen at the equator. I wondered if that machine recognized a suspicion of a dark-skinned “Latino” holding an U.S. passport with a Chinese name? That might explain the reason why Spanish was switched on when my photo was taken?
I scrutinized the passport control paper that made me a citizen with an x. There was some basic information about me, such as name, birthday and passport number. A peculiar bar with L-M-H benchmarks, indicating a scale from 1 to 100, marked me at 77. What did it mean? It was probably the cause to get me here.
Later I researched online. It is a numerical indicator of whether or not a citizen has more data on file to retrieve. If the customs officer needs more information out of you, this helps them decide if questions, or an additional query, will give them quicker information. We are all numbered!
I started to develop an odium towards the passport control machine, that differentiated me from my students. The age of my U.S. citizenship is way longer than the lifetime of my students. I am sure I paid more tax, and contributed much more serving for the country during my 32 American years. Does the FM number reflect that?!
Who designed these machines that mechanically judge an U.S. citizen as trustworthy or not, lawful or convicted? On what moral ground they process the power of authority arbitrating individual citizens supposedly protected as equal under the constitution? Did they classify people based on the stereotypical data of ethnicities, cultures and country of origins? Speaking about stereotypes, many IT people working for Silicon Valley or Cambridge Massachusetts are dark skinned Indians and Asians. Did they design this artificial intelligence to trach themselves?
The zigzag line was moving in a snail pace.
I looked around. The citizen-without-x area was already empty and my side was still packed with people. Most of them were seemingly from the south American countries, or Latinos in dark or light skin tones. Some appeared to be Caucasians, but their bleached blond hair and accents suggested otherwise. Not many East Asians were in the line, if I agreed with my appearance that the machine at the kiosk had produced.
Everyone maintained quietly in lines, but I could smell the air of uneasiness and anxiety. Behind me, a beer-bellied father with a Yankee baseball hat led a family of children. The slow line waiting made them impatient. They started to fool around each other in Spanish. The dad turned to them in a grim look. “From now on, everyone must speak in English! Otherwise you will be in trouble!” He commanded in a deep throat. The kids nodded and switched to English, perfect English in native tongues!
A text message flashed on my iPhone. My students were all waiting for me at the other side of the border and the officers urged them to move on. I texted back and instructed them to transfer their luggage and find the gate. I would join them shortly when I finished my line. I tried to make it sounded that it was my own bad choice to pick up a wrong long line. I worried that my students would think me not as one of them.
A young male officer passed by and I told him my situation as a college professor responsible for taking my students back home safely and I was about to miss the flight. He shrugged and said with businesslike politeness that he could not do anything for me, once I was identified as a Citizen X. Momentarily, a female officer passed by, I took the opportunity appealed to her, she apologetically replied once again that it’s beyond her control to help a Citizen X. She suggested that I should hold my U.S. passport in a noticeable position. I was not sure how it would help me, but I sensed her good nature of sympathy, despite her inability to change my status as a Citizen X.
Eventually, I inched my way to the counter of a passport control officer. After examining my passport and information on the computer vigilantly, and a few questions, the black officer handed back my passport with a genuine smile: “Welcome home!”
My taste of the familiar sweet words was a little sour …
After collecting my chick-in suitcase at the empty carousal, I rushed towards the gates through a long hallway. There were about 10 officers with fire arms on their belts and a K9 lining up along the hallway, chatting while watching the passengers passing through.
There were some other passengers in the hall way. Just about I reached to the end of the hallway, a short haired white female officer stepped out from her fellow officers and signaled me to stop. She requested my passport and questioned where I had been. I told her I was taking my college students for a spring break service-learning trip in Ecuador.
“You are a college professor?” She leaned forward doubtfully with her hand tightly holding my passport.
“What do you teach?” “Visual arts.” I replied.
“At what school?” she continued.
I realized I was now facing a human with the same mental programing as the passport control machine. I fortunately carried my faculty ID with me.
She carefully compared my face to the photos on my passport and the faculty ID. Finally, she let me go. I could feel the burn of her inquisitive eyes on my back.
I admit, my appearance that day definitely did not match her vision of an intellect in the field of academia.
With this episode, there was no way for me to catch my students. I called and apologized while they were boarding the plane. It was the first time that I didn’t see my students safely arriving home.
The airline put me on another flight two hours later.
It gave me a chance to finish up a book I brought with me during travels. “Never Let Me Go” is a sad yet tender novel by Kazuo Ishinguro, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.
At the end, the fiction left the reader a sentiment of vulnerability, inability and irresistibility of accepting the tragic fate fabricated by the institutionalized public ethos for the benefit of society, by perplexing the human kindness, love and compassion. The talented author mastered a flavor of faintly bitter tea: despondent, anguish and peaceful.
As I closed the book and rested eyes on people surrounding me at the airport, everyone was immersed in their own concerns and problems. My sentiments of being a Citizen X seemed so trivial and even irrelevant. Securing the borders and immigration controls are the institutionalized philosophy of our time. The officers and passport control machines are simply following the movement of its organism.
It just hurt a little during the process, sometimes.
Maybe, next time before I walk to the passport control kiosk, I will put up some white powders on my face, like the Japanese Geishas?