In 22 years of travelling as an adult, the only time I haven't been questioned and/or searched by airport security or Customs in a foreign country was when I was travelling with the wife of a prominent Australian government official. When we landed in LAX we were met by an official-ly fancy pants kind of person and basically bypassed Customs. After the marathon flight, it was a welcome welcome -- and one that has never been repeated.
No matter where I go in the world, on any continent, from metropolis to tiny town, at every airport I am singled out for extra security checks. I've been interrogated, strip-searched, had my luggage opened and strewn everywhere, and random items such as pencil sharpeners and eyelash curlers removed -- all in the name of national security. (Yes, yes, I deserve to be punished for being so vain I used to travel with an eyelash curler -- now I just have a better mascara -- but that's not the point.)
It's the unpredictability of the situation; will I be hauled out to be interrogated? Will I be strip-searched?
All this fuss couldn't simply be about my INTERPOL listing, could it? Kidding! It must be my resting bitch face, which, over the years, has become a genuine bitch face, complete with gritted teeth and narrowed eyes, because I know what's coming.
As I've watched colleagues, or friends, or my partner (or whoever I'm travelling with, really) breeze through security/Customs, I can't relax, knowing that I'm about to receive unwanted attention as part of a 'routine check'. It's exhausting, when all you want to do is get on your way. And it's absolutely terrifying.
I'm so visibly nervous I probably look as though I've got a kilo of cocaine in my t-shirt. It's the unpredictability of the situation; will I be hauled out to be interrogated? Will I be strip-searched/violated by a humourless person with a latex glove? Will they believe my answers? Will they find the contraband eyelash curler in my suitcase?
In my younger days, before I knew this was going to be a pattern at airports across the world, I was much more defiant than nervous. I recall my first time in London as an adult (without parents to answer for me), standing at Heathrow Customs, openly appalled at the interrogation that forced me to publicly answer personal questions about my visit. Who was collecting me at the airport (my sister), where she lived (Ealing -- I should have said Knightsbridge), her profession (a doctor), where she worked (eye roll -- at some hospital), when her visa expires (how am I supposed to know that?!), her private home number in Australia (wait, what?), the name of her boss in the hospital (FTLOG please just let me in, I really need a shower).
My sister, waiting anxiously on the other side of the gate, was exasperated by my attitude when I reported the incident. "They want to know you're not going to disappear. London has so many illegal Indian immigrants. They send people back on the plane all the time," she warned. It still seemed a tad extreme to me, though I had to admit that coming all the way over and not making it to Harrods (or seeing my sister) would have been pretty annoying.
After years of 'special treatment', I realise now that the way I view myself -- a law-abiding citizen with nothing to fear because she's done nothing wrong -- is not how security and Customs see me.
But I've mellowed in my old age. No matter how exhausted I am after crossing the 12 time zones to get anywhere from Australia, I'm no longer cocky at airports, and I haven't been for a long time. Because after years of 'special treatment', I realise now that the way I view myself -- a law-abiding citizen with nothing to fear because she's done nothing wrong -- is not how security and Customs see me. I resisted it for a long time, but I can't help but conclude that I'm defined by my skin colour, and that's what repeatedly attracts such a high level of scrutiny.
And now I'm finally facing the reality that I'm too scared to travel. Without a doubt, sh*t got real after 9/11, and then Brexit... and even more so after 20th January 2017, when Trump took office. Even though the travel ban has been 'amended', even though I have an Australian passport because I was born here, I don't know that I have the courage to enter the United States during the Trump administration.
Australian author Mem Fox's recent experience of interrogation at LAX demonstrates why I'm so concerned. There is more pressure than ever on airports to vet and process visitors. Fox has said this week that she understands the need for it, but it should be done in a more gentle way. I agree with that sentiment, but let's face it -- it's never going to happen. Customs and security agents are trained to be intimidating/authoritative -- and most of them are civil. But they are responsible for permitting people and their belongings on to planes or into the country, a responsibility that is massive enough at the best of times, let alone in the current political climate.
My experience may have made me accustomed to that attention, but certainly not comfortable with it.
And so I'm scared more than ever. I don't want to travel with my son when the stakes are so high. It's hard enough that with his white skin I don't look like his mother, which has caused airport incidents in the past. I certainly don't want to put us in a situation now where my 'different' appearance will attract an unprecedented level of attention -- and potentially unprecedented consequences.
My experience may have made me accustomed to that attention, but certainly not comfortable with it. It makes me so sad for my son that this is the world he's being raised in. The good news is that I'm confident that as a white male, he'll still be able to explore it unhindered -- and take his eyelash curler anywhere he wants to.
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