Monday, January 29, 2007

On random selection..

In Babel there's a scene where Amelia struggles at a border checkpoint. Going into Mexico was a breeze, but coming back was slightly more complex. Perhaps because of my own checkpoint memories the scene was particularly compelling.

Thirteen years ago, we as a family drove up with relatives to the promised land of large water faucets and infinite amounts of Ripley's Believe it Or Not Museums, I speak of course, of Niagara Falls. Entering Canada was downright festive as though trombones and confetti should have accompanied our arrival. I still remember the checkpoint guard as he waved us through with a huge grin. Perhaps he smiled because he was tickled at the fun we'd have trying to return

If that was the reason for his grin, he was dead on because the return to the US was a bit more complicated. I still remember us inching forward to the checkpoint amidst rows of cars, us cousins sitting in my parents gray minivan curled up in blankets and eating Doritos. I still remember the guard (let's call him Bob). Tall and wiry with a brown mustache and tinted brown sunglasses and for some reason absolutely convinced our passports were fake. I remember my father's exasperated insistence that we were US Citizens and I remember Bob smirking as he shrugged his shoulders, dismissing the proof we provided and responding in the nasal voice which I can still remember to this day: How do I knowww you're an American Citizen? I remember showing him driver's licences, vehicle registration, grocery receipts crushed inside purses, but to each he shrugged and invariably responded "How do I knowww you're an American Citizen?" After an interminable wait where I presume they ran our passports, they allowed us to pass, but leaving us cousins bewildered but giggling as we imitated Bob the entire ride home in various reincarnations such as How do I knowww you're not hiding the Doritos. For us it was silly strange Bob, nothing more, and we knew it was the last we'd see of him.

But Bob has shown himself to me quite frequently since then, particularly at check points where he feels my luggage always merits a second glance. Ofcourse I know its random. It is so random that my Brazilian classmates must have found me clairvoyant as I predicted our random selection minutes before we approached the ticketing booth. They must have been clamoring for a palm reading by yours truly for as we handed over our passports, lo and behold, the lanky agent with the carefully parted hair studiously read off the screen that it just so happened that my husband and I were selected for inspection. He took great pains to assure us it was completely random.

Years later as the number of Bob's I encounter grow exponentially I still try to find the humor in it though the amusement is tainted by an unavoidable disappointment. I've accepted that it is what it is and I grin and bear it because I must and I understand the reasons behind it, I do. But I can't help but feel slightly sucker punched as it is a reminder that though the US is all I've ever known, somehow I am still a foreigner within its borders.

24 comments:

Suroor said...

"...though the US is all I've ever known, somehow I am still a foreigner within its borders."

You hit the nail on its head with this one! I can't agree more. We have Bob's, everywhere - Bob's who refuse to open doors for brown skinned people at Harrod's, Bob's who tell a Pakistani couple in the same store that they "can't afford the store!", Bob's that look at you up and down on the tube, Bob's who smirk and pass comments. Ah! God Damn those F****** Bob's! :)

Aisha said...

Suroor, wow, are the experiences you describe from where you live? I havent' really heard that sort of thing too much here yet. Particularly the "can't afford the store", most strangers always assume either I or my husband is a doctor and try to sell us something pricey! I heard that the middle east is extremely racist with tons of Bobullah's who look down in particular at desis. It's sad. It's also proof that there is no one race or ethnicity that holds the moral prominence on being unracist and all accepting. In fact, my next post is on reverse discrimination :)

ABCDlaw said...

It's funny because my family went to Canada last summer and we too were expecting to be grilled on our way back to the US, but instead the border person didn't even ask to look at our passports. He just looked at my dad's licence and waved us on thru.

I live in the southwest and here its Mexicans who are looked down on. Even though I could look Hispanic, I've never really encountered racism from Americans. Desis on the other hand have been more racist with me, and my current post is even about that.

Looking forward to the reverse discrimination post.

frenchita said...

Aisha...Awww!!! But know what, don't let it get you..who cares what they think? I have been born and raised in saudi, and yet I feel like an expatriate there...and dont feel like an Indian either..someone here said desis are racist and that's right..
anyway, what God thinks of us should matter the most!

mezba said...

reading your response @Suroor... Bobullah... HAHAHAHA...

You should come to Canada. True gentlemen here.

For now.

Ayesha said...

how do i knowwwwwwwww you're not hiding the doritos.. lol... that is sooo funny!!! kids always know best how to deal with such situations :)

coupla summers ago my hubby, traveling with his lil bro and two frreinds, was stopped coming back in and grilled for four hours :(

i know the foreigner feeling.. my method of coping is to KNOW i belong and laugh at other people for not knowing it too ("silly bob! my english is even better than yours!"), but that's all in my head and won't change how others think...

Baji said...

"...though the US is all I've ever known, somehow I am still a foreigner within its borders."

so, so sad. Insh'Allah, may your children not experience the same.

Aisha said...

abcdlaw that is wonderful that you have not experienced racism. I would say that this post wasn't about racism but more about profiling though. Have you also not had experiences with profiling?

Frenchita, you are right!

Mezba, I heard racism is out of control in Canada!!

Ayesha that is a great way to approach the situation. What good does it do to let it get to you anyways? Four hours is a long time. I'm sorry that happened :(.

Baji, insh'allah, but it is unlikely.

mezba said...

No way! Canada is a great place - the people are smart, educated and as long as you are not living in the middle of nowhere people are great. This is a great country, specially for Muslims. Which other country apologized to its citizen having wrongly prosecuted him for being a terro rist, and awarded him 10.5 million dollars? Certainly not the US.

The US is getting all excited about its first Muslim congressman? We have had muslim, hindu,sikh,budhist MPs for a long time.

frenchita said...

hey mezba...my bro is thinking of continuing his studies in canada..your last comment made me feel a lil relieved..

mystic-soul said...

First of all .... Bobullah was the best word from your entire blog...HAHAHAHAHA x 2

Second, Welcome to club

Third, I agree with Mezba 100%. I travel to Canada frequently and Canada is 10 times more tolerant than USA. None of the immigrants I met had "alien feeling" like we have in USA despite being citizens. Last month I was in Toronto and immigration was done by a sikh and on return I had a fellow gora passenger who had little confusion on ticket. He was assisted (very confidently) by a hijabi girl on Air Canada counter. Personally, I extremely admire Canada's concept of 'pluralism'.

ABCDlaw said...

About profiling...well last time we flew it did take my dad a while to get his boarding passes. The rest of us had no trouble when we flew without my dad. The guy at the ticket counter was probably my age (and from what I could tell new to the job). when we first got there he noticed my State U. shirt and said he studied there too and we talked a little about the football team's winning streak. Anyways, everyone but dad's boarding pass was given right away, but his supervisor had to take dad's licence and "run it through something". While we were waiting I casually asked what the hold up was and he said in a low voice that my dad's name was a common known alias for someone they were trying to catch, but after photo IDs or something they cleared it up. He was soo nice through the whole time and apologized profusely for any inconvience.

So yeah luckily I haven't had too many negative experiences in profiling either. IA I hope it continues. Sorry to hear about your experiences though.

Tee said...

I never realized this went on until I married Carlos. I heard that it went on but thought people exaggerated. I think most white people don't really believe it's a big deal until they're faced with it.

Book of interest, "Not a Genuine Black Man: Or, How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs" by Brian Copeland... This is a memoir that is hard to put down. I think it should be required reading - especially in predominantly white areas (like my small town high school.) Maybe even make it part of the training program for border agents, law enforcement, etc... How about every human read it? LOL. Forced reading sounds good to me ;)

The book is about how this guy struggles to be accepted in a 99% white town growing up. And then how he's rejected by the black community for "acting too white" - essentially feeling like he doesn't belong in either. He's racially profiled several times by local police, etc... If there's any book out there to help you become color blind, it's this one.

I know you'd relate to it a lot because even I related to it... I even wrote the author when I was done reading and he wrote back. He's a really nice, down to earth guy.

Anyway, I'm sorry you have to put up with this on a regular basis. It isn't fair. Perhaps the new passport laws will help even the playing field a little bit. (Everyone has to be checked to come back in.)

PS -
"How do I knowww you're not hiding the Doritos." is hilarious. That's totally something I can imagine doing with my sisters.

Anonymous said...

On returning to the US, my Bob didn't pretend that he randomly selected me. He said that in the naming game I lost (Ali Saeed). After behind held in a room for 3 hours my baggage on the carrousel was left unclaimed and thus subject to inspection. The inspector angerily asked why I didn't pick up my luggage. I explained being held for a backgournd check to which he asked, "why did they hold you". I replied, "because of my name", pointing to my name. He said, "oh yeah. ha ha, yeah" He was pretty nice after that.

Aisha said...

Mezba you raise a good point. Keith Ellison's election caused such an uproar it is a bit ridiculous particularly when he has a clean record yet people questioned his loyalties to the US... BUT what about the every day man? Do you experience racism? I heard that Toronto has major ethnic tensions and I wasn't surprised when I heard that because I've found that wherever tehre are large groups of minorities, racism and steroetypes proliferate like frisky bunnies.

Mystic, lol glad I could humor you:). I think that though its great that you met such diversity in Canada, I still dont know if that means that racism is a thing of the past there?

ABCDLaw, its a part of life I guess. You do what you have to do. Look at Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) such a sweet and pacifist time of person and he is on a no fly list. It's just the way it is....

Tee, I think you're right. Some people dont believe me but I think those who may not have who were on the Brasil trip certainly saw it first hand. I have heard of the books your talked about, I need to put them on my wishlist. I have been not doing enough "fun" reading as I would like because of all the not so fun reading I'm deluged with!

Anon. :( I know. that made my stomach hurt when I heard about it. It's scary to me because God forbid what if something else happens, then will they feel okay detaining you, God forbid???

Ruby said...

Like Mezba said, Canada is Muslim friendly. YAY CANADA!
I grew up in the US and in the last couple years anytime I've been there I've not been too comfortable. The only time I wasn't hassled was traveling with my sorority sisters.

mystic said...

Racism will always be a part of human society. Its an evil you can minimize but can't eradicate. Canada succesfully integrated immigrants in society. Latest example is TV serial "Little Mosque on the Prairie" at main stream media channel CBC. In USA can you imagine mainstream media excepting muslims to run TV serial !!.

Mezba can answer better about Toronto but I found Toronto extremely welcoming to all ethnicities.

Aisha said...

Ruby- you feel uncomfortable? I'm so sorry to hear that. I dont feel uncomfortable for the most part. I mean the usual minority thing, and ofcourse the airports, but aside from that on a daily basis, I dont feel scared or apprehensive for my lfe.

Mystic- that's an interesting point of view. That's 1 of the reasons I like bloging, it exposes me to new perspectives.

Bee Amma said...

mmm alot of my friends have had trouble flying to the states especially. Its whats keeping me from flying to new york (i wouldnt even dream of getting the bus there....i imagined i might get a bit stuck) from toronto. oh well. what can ya do. we got "randomly" searched at the airport in istanbul, all because my friend used to wear hijab and the photo on her passport had her in a hijab. we were pulled out of the check out queue....told it was completely random (yeah right) and had all our bags and stuff opened. they apologised and said British Airways make them do it.
ah well.

Aisha said...

Bee Amma, i wonder if they doubted it was who they were b/c of the hijab? Kashif had a simialr issue in his old passport b/c he looked quite diff in the passport from now. I mean, its valid for ten years so naturally as you're on the tail end of the passports validity it will happen! :)

yasmine said...

Such a well-written, thought-provoking entry, Aisha - but I'm sorry, I can't offer any articulate comments because I'm too busy snickering to myself. How do I knowwwwwwwwwwwww...? =)

Cindi said...

My husband and I had the SAME issue coming back from the Canadian side of Niagra a year ago!! We had taken my daughter's birth certificate with us, hubbie's passport and my birth cert. He still acted like we were coming to the US for nefarious reasons, even made us show him the receipt for our rental van we were driving. Really abrasive but it is funny he kept asking you that! Our guy just kept giving us this really stern look. I'm just an average looking white, blond haired American, my husband is Pakistani but is a citizen so couldn't understand all this hesistation. I hear that the Candadian border is now going to require passports of everyone.

Anonymous said...

Don't fret. Long before your flavor of brown was the target of suspicion I had to endure such petty annoyances, cept in my case I was not the stereotypical terrorist but the sterotypical drug dealer.

My gift, my curse - to KNOW I would be stoped and searched. It was inevitable that no matter when I travelled I was pulled aside, my bags rumaged through by some stranger.

I took it personal at first but then it became a game. I wanted to see the looks on their faces when they opened my bags as I put the worst things I had with me on top. As I am an outdoor enthusiast I was often blessed with such items as sweaty, muddy socks along with other various items, soiled in some way or another.

Eventually I got past that stage and realized that they really are doing it for our own good, maybe from a skewed point of view - but I'd rather them harass somone for a few mintes than not... and be wrong.

My two cents.

Living Away said...

playing amelia is my life every time i get out of this hell knowing as switzerland.
it's so easy to get out and i have blogged a lot about the terrible things the "swiss bobs" have done to me.
they have accused me to change my name, to fake my passport, they have blocked my car with 5 more "bobs" pointing their poweful guns, they have taken my car sits out looking for cocaine, they even accused me to have a original rayban sunglass.

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