This post originally appeared on VICE Canada. Last October, I took the overnight Megabus from Toronto to New York City. The purpose of the trip was to watch the World/Inferno Friendship Society, a gypsy-punk anarchist collective, play an annual Halloween concert.
We arrived at the Canadian American border around 2 AM. Our bus was sold out, and the line to see customs wrapped around the building. As I waited, I began to people-watch. Passengers played with their hair or picked at their fingernails. Some made small talk, while others stood silently and stared at their shoes. As I got closer to the border agents, the people-watching changed from a game of spot the idiosyncrasy to full-on drama.
The agents aggressively grilled passengers with question after question. They used hand scanners. One lady had to put her face on a machine that shone light into her eyes. It was like the border agents were expecting something out of Total Recall. I don't know if it was the sleep deprivation, the boredom, or the Orwellian nature of the scene in front of me, but for whatever reason, I began to get nervous.
What if the border guards asked about the band? What if they googled them? The last time I saw World/Inferno play a drum kit was on fire, and the singer ranted for 20 minutes about overthrowing the government. There were videos online. All of a sudden my hands began to shake, and I felt a bit queasy. As the border guard waved me to the desk, I pictured interrogation rooms and strip searches.
"Where are you going?" asked the agent.
"Brooklyn," I said.
Then the border guard waved me through.
I've shared my border story on a bunch of different occasions. It's been met with everything from casual laughter to full on disgust, but every time sharing the story sparked conversations about people's own experiences crossing country lines. Below are my favorite anecdotes from those conversations.
My name is Faisal Butt. That's my actual name. It's not a great name to have in elementary school or prison. It's an especially terrible name to have when you're trying to cross a border. After 9/11, my white friends got a little too comfortable talking about my appearance. They were always coming up to me being like: Faisal! Look at you, man! You're brown! Your hair is all over the place! You've got this crazy beard! You're starting to look like a terrorist! I was always like, man… Why can't you just say I look lazy? Or broke?
"Anyways, the whole you-look-like-a-terrorist thing can cause trouble. Especially when I'm trying to travel."
If we're being honest: I'm a middle-aged, unemployed, pot-smoking, whisky-drinking Muslim who is dating a British girl. The only people I'm terrorizing are my parents. It's like I've got a jihad on their dreams. Anyways, the whole you-look-like-a-terrorist thing can cause trouble. Especially when I'm trying to travel.
I don't really go into the States, but I've been to the UK a bunch. Every time I go, I end up with a brown immigration officer. Usually that makes things more comfortable. But there was this one time, a couple of years ago, when I was going through the magnetic security gates, and I started beeping. The guy at security got all stern and told me to take my jacket off. He was ready to wand me when all of a sudden he sees my Wu-Tang shirt. He stops everything and says in this thick Icelandic accent: "Hey! Wu-Tang clan ain't nuttin to fuck with!" Then he put the wand down and basically just motioned me through. I'm glad that things turned out like they did, but that's the most fucked-up thing ever.
I'd been in the States for about three hours. That morning I'd driven from Toronto to Niagara Falls and crossed into Buffalo. I wanted to pick up this fancy hair-straightening treatment that was discontinued in Canada after the formaldehyde burned some girl's scalp. Turns out they discontinued the product in the States, too. Back at the border, I pull up to the little booth and hand over my passport. The border guard seems to be a cheery enough fellow. He starts into the spiel:
"How long have you been in the United States?"
"Your license plate says Quebec. Why are you coming through at Niagara Falls?
"I go to school in Toronto for radio. Haven't changed my license plate yet. This is the closest border."
"What do you want to do with radio?"
"I want to work for the CBC."
"Oh! Are you a lesbian?"
While the question was obviously inappropriate, the border guard did not ask it rudely. He had this cheery lilt in his voice. His brain had quite genuinely gone: CBC = lesbian. You can make all the jokes about public broadcasting you like, but that is one hell of a cognitive leap. Not to mention he actually vocalized it. Thing is though… I am a lesbian. But I have no idea how he knew! I am super femme, so that stereotype is out of the running. I legit started looking around my car thinking: Do I have my rainbows out? Am I wearing my "This is what a lesbian looks like" T-shirt? Is my toaster oven in the back seat? After a few awkward seconds, I finally said to him: "Yes… ?"
"Oh. Good. You should tell them that when you apply for a job at the CBC. They probably have that thing. That hiring thing…"
"Yeah that! We have that. We've started hiring all these LGBT people. Don't know what the 'T' stands for… But, anyways, good luck with that!"
And then he sent me on my way.
Like many refugees, I've crossed a lot of borders in my life. Sometimes legally. Sometimes not so legally. It's something that my family had to do to ensure our safety. When I was a child, my dad was forced to leave Iran. A play he had written was closed down, and it had landed him on the wanted list. If my dad was found in the country, he would have been arrested. There was a strong possibility that they would have killed him. My father ended up in Canada, and the journey for our family to join him was long and difficult. An Iranian passport gives you access to almost no parts of the world. We knew we needed to leave, but it wasn't as easy as just leaving.
For most of my childhood, we went from country to country. There are dozens of different stories I could tell from that time, but there is one that stands out the most. I was 12, and my family had three Greek passports. We had gotten them from a smuggler that we paid an exuberant amount of money. The Greek passports looked decent. After years of being ripped off and scammed, we were grateful to have them. The problem was we were definitely not Greek. We didn't speak the language. We didn't know anything about the country. We don't really look Greek either. Our skin and hair is too dark. After years of bad experiences with police officers and the constant threat of being found out, we were nervous. But the passports were what we had. So we tried to use them.
We were in the Florence airport trying to get on a connecting flight that would eventually bring us to Canada. The border agent asked for our passports. He looked at us, then he looked at our passports, and this big smile crossed his face. He began to speak in Greek. I looked at my mom and recognized the horror on her face. I knew that something needed to be done or we were going to be arrested.
I turned to my sister and loudly began to sing the children's song "Stella-Ella-Ola" along with the accompanying hand gestures. My sister quickly joined me. As the border agent tried to ask more questions, my sister and I got louder and louder. We smiled at him with our biggest grins. Mom just kept on shaking her head like she couldn't hear the questions over the song. Eventually the border agent got frustrated and handed us back our passports. We were let through, but my sister and I didn't stop singing until we knew we were out of earshot. We kept singing as loudly as we could.
My brother's name is Jack George Donaldson. He was born on July 5, 1979. He has a wife and two kids. Jack is pretty much the WASPiest looking dude in the world. If I were to ask you to think of a handsome white-straight-cis man, you'd be picturing him. He's the last person on Earth you'd expect to have trouble crossing the border.
"When the officer poked his head into the van and asked me, 'Are you or have you ever been a member of the Crips gang?' I knew that I had become feverish."
Last Christmas, my family and I took the long pilgrimage to the most magical place on earth: We drove 24 hours (straight!) to Disney World. I had the flu for the entirety of this trip. Upon reaching the American border, I was expecting long vacation lines. What I was not expecting was an interrogation from border security.
My brother was wearing tan khakis that day. My niece and nephew were sitting in the back wearing Mickey Mouse ears. My mother was knitting a sweater in the passenger's seat. My whole family looked like the Bradys mated with the von Trapps. We were border security gold!
When we reached the border, I noticed that Jack was sweating, almost as much as my flu-ridden ass. He took a deep breath and pulled up to the gate. Maybe it was the flu, but he seemed nervous. "What could he possibly be nervous about?" I wondered.
I knew that my flu had progressed when they asked Jack to get out of the car. But he remained very calm. Even when they spread him across the hood of the car. It was like he expected as much. Like he was just going through the motions.
When the officer poked his head into the van and asked me, "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Crips gang?" I knew that I had become feverish. This couldn't be real, could it? I felt like I was a character from a Kafka novel.
"The Crips? The Crips?! Oh yes, officer. My whole family are members. We're the ones who killed Tupac."
That's what I almost said. Luckily my flu made it difficult to speak without vomiting. You see, there are disadvantages to having such a generic name as Jack George Donaldson. In my brother's case, these disadvantages include sharing the same name, date of birth, marital status, and number of children as an alleged Crips member. No amount of khaki can get you through border security with a coincidence that big. Apparently the Crip thing happens to him every time he tries to cross.
We walk up to the border services desk at Pearson, booth ten.
"Where are you going?" The agent has a New Jersey drawl, his name tag reads Ewo.
"To check out the inauguration."
"Because we're interested."
"But you're not American."
"No. Ukrainian. And Canadian."
"So why are you interested?"
"We've been watching online for the past two years…"
We don't know what else to say.
"What do you do for a living?"
"Put your hand on the bible." Marichka presses her four right fingers down on the green scanner. She knows this process well; her thumb already tucked into her palm when we walked up.
"Look up," he says, without looking up himself. She is already looking into the camera.
He stamps our passports, tosses them on the countertop.
My phone automatically connects to the airport WiFi. I have mail: See you at the 58th Presidential Inauguration of Donald J. Trump and Michael R. Pence! Thank you for your patience. Attached is your FREE, commemorative Voices of the People and Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration Ticket.
Marichka's phone automatically connects, too. She has a message from her sister from a log cabin in Pushkin Hills, Russia: The winter is so beautiful here. Twenty or so inches of snow, and it doesn't melt. But I'm scared to go out for a walk by myself because there are wild animal tracks everywhere. * Name has been changed to protect anonymity.
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