Friday, March 27, 2009

Mistaken Identity at the Border in Hanoi

On our recent trip to Vietnam, I got a tiny taste of the terror and fear thousands of travelers must experience at our borders. We were at the Hanoi airport, catching a flight to Siem Reap. We got to the airport way too early. There wasn't much to do in the general ticketing area, so we decided to go through passport control and head to the gate. That was probably a mistake, as the customs agents at passport control were sitting around bored at that point. No one else was in line when we got up to passport control.

Mrs. Octopus went through first. Normally, I like to walk up to passport control with Mrs. Octopus, as standing next to her tends to make me a little less shady-looking, I think: the thirty-something Indian-looking guy with the nice Vietnamese wife is less likely to catch the interest of border guards than the thirty-something Indian-looking guy apparently travelling alone and probably up to no good. Unfortunately, the clerks at the passport control booth -- three twenty-something men and women who appeared to be texting before we walked up to their booth -- said they wanted us to come up separately. Mrs. Octopus handed over her passport, got stamped, and was on her way off to the gate.

I walked up next and handed over my passport. The young woman who was looking at my passport was about to stamp it when the guy sitting next to her said something I didn't understand and pointed to something posted at their desk. I couldn't quite see what it was, but it looked like a xeroxed or faxed picture of someone. She said something back to him, and then the guy turned to the other woman sitting at the desk and asked her to look at my passport and the xeroxed picture. I started to get a little freaked out when the guy started taking quick glances up at my face from my passport and the xeroxed picture. The sinking feeling I had dramatically accelerated when, after a minute or so of scrutinizing my passport and stealing looks at me, the guy in the middle picked up the phone.

At that point, I called out to Mrs. Octopus, who was waiting for me somewhere behind passport control, in the gate area. She came back around the front of the booth. The initial passport control clerk, who still seemed skeptical of the middle guy's suspicions, confirmed with Mrs. Octopus that I was her husband and that we were in fact American. She said something that sounded like "See, you moron?" (but in Vietnamese) to the guy in the middle, but he kept pointing to my passport photo and the xeroxed picture and saying something about "the ears." I caught a glimpse of the xeroxed picture as they were passing it around: it looked like a pudgy-faced middle-aged Indian guy who could have played a villain in a Bollywood movie. He had thick, menacing eyebrows. I couldn't really say if his ears looked like mine.

While we were waiting for whomever it was that the guy had called to show up or call back, I was getting frustrated and worried that the whole thing was getting a little out of control. I pulled out my California driver's license, my credit cards, and maybe even my LAPL card, and laid them out on the customs booth desk. The guy looked at them quickly but seemed unmoved. After another uncomfortable minute or two, two older customs officials came walking up to the booth from some back office in the gate area. As they were looking at my passport, I tried to explain to one of the older guards that I was born in America and lived in California. I said this in Vietnamese, which was probably not a good idea, because it probably made me appear more suspicious. One of the older customs officials, who looked like a nice grandfatherly type, took my papers, told Mrs. Octopus not to worry -- that it wasn't a big deal, and walked off back to his office.

Mrs. Octopus was doing a good job not appearing too flustered while we waited for the older official to come back (or send police out to take me into custody). I, on the other hand, was starting to break out in a cold sweat of sheer terror. I started imagining worst-case scenarios: we were, after all, in a communist country. Who knew how things worked there? Did they adhere to international conventions applying to travellers? What did they do in Vietnam with individuals suspected to be wanted persons? What type of interrogation would there be? What right would I have to complain about interrogation techniques as an United States citizen? Would they deport me to Myanmar or Malaysia or wherever it was that the Bollywood villain guy in the xerox was wanted?

While I was playing out scenarios that would end with me locked away in solitary in a Vietnamese prison, the older official came back and handed my passport to the clerk whom I had originally handed my papers to. He said "I'm sorry about that," in English, smiled, and walked away. The woman quickly stamped my passport, as the guy in the middle, looking a little frustrated, pretended not to watch (or care).

Mrs. Octopus and I walked around the gate area, waiting for our flight, which wasn't for another hour or so. My nerves were still totally shot and I felt really jangled. I didn't feel quite calm again until an hour or so into our flight.

I realize that my little incident was insignificant and minor, but I think it was enlightening, in opening a little window into the terrors immigrants (and, at times, citizens) face at our borders, where they are at times confronted with suspicious border agents who refuse to believe that the immigrants are who they say they are. Who knows how many people at the border have been routed into enhanced interrogation because a twenty-four-year-old border guard thought their ears resembled some terrorist's ears? We read about nightmarish stories like this all the time. I was shaken just to have a taste of what this must be like. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to fall even deeper down that dark rabbit hole.


jose said...

welcome to the jungle?

(txt'ed you a few hours ago for korean at our place – but we missed you)

But I love you said...

Sorry, Ron, the guy in that picture was probably me.