I’ve been back in the US for about 10 days now, and I already have a long list of “very American” experiences that I’d like to blog about as I readjust to life in my own country. So, time to get started! I figured why not start at the beginning – my arrival at the Los Angeles International Airport and my entry into US territory. It’s been so long since I’ve been home that I had totally forgotten how utterly unsmiling, serious, and downright rude the US Customs and Border Protection Officers are. They look as though they suck lemons for breakfast and haven’t gotten a good lay in years. What’s up with that?
Nothing says “welcome home” like a poker-faced interrogation, after enduring the tedium of an hour-long wait in a line that moves at the pace of molasses flowing uphill in winter, the only diversion being that it is punctuated every so often by the harsh barks of a suited PMSing officer directing the front-most customer to advance forward to the booth. Because, clearly the reason the line is going so slowly is not because the officers are relentlessly questioning US citizens about entry into their own country, but rather because the people at the front of the queue are not moving forward fast enough.
I was reminded of my polar opposite experience with Immigration New Zealand when I arrived at the Auckland Airport in late December. New Zealand was one of my last stops on my journey home, and I couldn’t have received a warmer welcome. When I approached the desk and the immigration officer asked for my landing card (after first wishing me a Merry Christmas), I realized I didn’t have one because I’d slept through the whole flight and missed them being handed out on the plane. When I told him this, I fully expected him to tell me to go get one, fill it out, and come back to the desk when I was done (this is what usually happens).
Instead, he said “Here’s one! You can stay here and fill it out. Take your time. No rush.” As I slowly filled out the landing card, he cheerfully made small talk with me. When I handed him my passport to be stamped, he flipped through the many visa-filled and stamp-filled pages and took an interest in all the places I’d traveled. He proceeded to ask me a bunch of questions about the various countries I’d been in Africa, not because he was trying to grill me on whether I have yellow fever, am a terrorist, or was attempting to smuggle fresh biltong into the country (which, in fact, I was), but simply because he was curious about those places.
He stamped my passport and wished me a wonderful stay in New Zealand. In short, New Zealand Immigration gave me the warm fuzzies. US Customs and Border Protection, on the other hand, made me feel stressed and anxious, like I’d committed a crime or was guilty of something, such as not sufficiently resembling my passport photo which was taken 5 years ago. And I’m an American citizen! I can’t imagine how unwelcome the foreigners feel. I suppose it’s going to be a long time before the US customer service ethos of “service with a smile” and “Have a nice day!” infiltrates the US Customs and Border Protection…