Your Customs Is Foreign To Us

for Aseem Chhabra and my fellow travelers

Something Aseem Chhabra said this weekend made me think of this.

Several months ago, I was detained at the Michigan-Canadian border because I had loose, unlabeled spices from Toronto, which the Lords of U.S. Customs did not recognize and needed to submit to agricultural inspection, a request I did not consider unreasonable until I saw how it was to be done. We were removed from our vehicle and did not have even visual contact with our property while they searched it.

(Who will inspect the inspection? They could take something! I said.

They could PLANT something, said someone else.)

As far I could tell, the only person of color in the office where we waited was Barack Obama. I found his picture on the wall comforting.

Our vehicle when we returned to it looked ransacked, but to the best of our knowledge, they took (and planted) nothing. Still, I have learned to prefer the airport. Or the New York border, where my loose Sri Lankan spices flummox no one.

Had a customs experience you loved? Hated? Share below.

26 thoughts on “Your Customs Is Foreign To Us

  1. As far I could tell, the only person of color in the office where we waited was Barack Obama.

    Border-crossings are definitely fraught, but why the veer into race as an issue? How would a white person feel crossing from Burma to India? Should s/he expect to see white agents there? I’m not sure why race is being foregrounded here–there are issues of drug legalization, international “free trade” (it never is) that seem more pertinent.

  2. My worst border-crossing was India-Sri Lanka–held up forever there and treated like a criminal by SL authorities, only to be released into a crowd of actual criminals (rip-off cabs, touts, etc.). Hesitant to go back although the country/people are great once you get outside of Colombo. Colombo is scariest airport I’ve ever been to! Also, lots of weird police checkpoints. Needs a lot of work if they want tourists to feel normal.

  3. What an awful experience! Just hope who ever went through the spices wore clean gloves, seriously.

  4. As far I could tell, the only person of color in the office where we waited was Barack Obama.

    plenty of colored people work for TSA. have they treated you more respectfully than the white people working for the TSA? my personal exp. says there is no difference.

    i understand that racism is real. and i understand people have had their own personal experiences. my own life tells me not to expect any particular solidarity from “people of color”, and not to expect a higher level of disrespect and hostility from white people because they’re white and i’m colored. when i encounter friends-of-color who have had a particular educational background it seems that they’ve been taught that white = hostile and colored = friendly. real life doesn’t always shake out that way.

    • This. In my experience the White folks in TSA have been much more willing to cut me some slack. Desis. . . Never. Not just with TSA either. Pretty much any situation where you put people in a position of power over a very narrow and inconsequential thing (e.g. DMV, Customs, Post Office, etc.)

  5. I agree completely with Razib, alot of minorities of different colour and creed work with the TSA and the experiences are frankly the same regardless who I’m facing.

    The most annoying experience in customs is probably that I always expect to be singled out, because this is what I’ve been told will happend. But infact I have never been, I’m frankly surprised so many have a different experience.

  6. crossing near NY state, in a car loaded with spices and fresh lady fingers (biohazard!), I recalled the advice proffered by the fellow who famously told a customs agent to “mind it” after returning from China–however the driver of the car, not me, decided to go the conventional route and say we, a car of three US citizens (not international criminals,) carried nothing to declare. Two brain cells short of the capacity for transcending his role as rule-swaddled bureaucrat-baby, the CBP officer let us go.

    I too am confused by the POC comment–is Barack Obama a better or worse facilitator of renditioning people for genital torture abroad than Bush? Has he deported immigrants at a lower rate? Presided over fewer abuses of civil liberties by agencies like, i dunno, the TSA? I must be the only brown person who grew up with functionally evil, culturally liberal, white people.

  7. It’s funny you posted this. Last week a woman from Manitoba was trying to cross over to the US when the border patrol found two Kinder Egg Chocolates in her car. She was fined $300 for her $2 candy! Kinder Eggs are banned in the US as a choking hazard to children because of the surprise prize found in the middle. I found this so bizarre because kids in Canada eat them all the time without any trouble!

    Full story-

  8. ^ I heard about that on the radio! Really stupid law obviously (and I remember eating those delightful eggs when I went to Toronto).

    What bothered me though is all the Canadians calling in to repeatedly make the same dumb point about how in America everyone can own a gun but we can’t have Kinder eggs. I admit the latter is stupid, but doesn’t the former apply in Canada as well?

    i’ll bet that this law is a result of some large-mouthed kid in montana or something who swallowed one of the plastic “surprises”. Also: if they banned Kinder Eggs, why didn’t they ban Wonder Balls? Those are chocolate eggs with “surprises” in the middle too.

  9. My worst experiences have been at customs in India, re-entering the country whose passport I hold.

    I’ve been stopped and harassed several times, for no good reason. The officers basically harass you to try get some dollars. Sad to know that it happens, somehow worse that it happens to Indian passport holders, since it makes me feel less proud to hold an Indian passport.

    And oh, the time I was on a cycling trip from Agra to Jaipur, they wouldn’t let me carry a small 20″ bicycle wheel as a carryon bag, because it could be used as a weapon. WTF?

    In comparison, the US argicultural checks and customs checks are so much more polite. And it is such a nice feeling when they say “welcome home, sir”. Never get that in India, even though I have an Indian passport.

    Though there was that one time at JFK when the exchange went something like this:

    Officer: So where are you coming back from? Me: Mumbai, India Officer (half-joking tone): Oh, so where’s your pet monkey? I don’t see him on your back… Me: I guess I left him behind on the plane… (half-smiling) Officer: Ha, ha, welcome back, sir.

    How offended should I have been?

  10. First of all: Michigan/Canada border? As a canadian, I may be being pedantic, but it’s either Michigan/Ontario or U.S. Canada right?

    Second of all, I lived in a border town growing up, and crossed regularly. Those customs agents at car crossings are to be feared. No joke. “Yes Sir” “No Sir” are a necessity. treat them like gods. Unfortunately, they can do whatever the hell they want with no fear of backlash. They can unpack your car, leave it all on the ground and walk away. They can take your car apart and walk away.

    Be very respectful.

    2nd lesson: be very wise when talking ot them: “What are you bringing in?” I say “$25 worth of groceries”. Never be specific unless directly asked.

  11. or Aseem Chhabra and my fellow travelers

    i for one am shocked to learn that Aseem and VV are communist sympathizers.

  12. Got a $300 fine at JFK for carrying curry leaves back from the Desh (the curry leaves probably cost $0.10). 3 months later, driving back from Canada, my wife, 6 month old girl and I were asked to get out of the car for a vehicle search. I was very upset that my daughter had to endure this. The guy with CBP was a total dick-head and was enjoying his little power trip. A young lady who worked with him was much nicer. They were both white. When I questioned why we were picked for the search, she responded that a previous issue at customs might have been the cause – made sense to me and we were on our way (albeit 40 minutes later).

    I agree with the advise though – be very very polite with these folks. The douchey ones can really give you a tough time. Good luck in your travels.

  13. Nothing bad, but I have found that flirting with same-sex guards makes for a prompt inspection. May be more dificult for the ladies since men seem to out number women there.

  14. First of all: Michigan/Canada border? As a canadian, I may be being pedantic, but it’s either Michigan/Ontario or U.S. Canada right?

    Haha well…you’re correct but many Americans (myself included) have a habit of thinking of Canada as that big snow globe up north… 😛

    They were both white. When I questioned why we were picked for the search, she responded that a previous issue at customs might have been the cause – made sense to me and we were on our way (albeit 40 minutes later).

    A 40 minute search (or any search longer than say 15-20 mins) sounds ridiculous tbh – especially considering you have a baby! I guess my family is lucky because we’ve never had our car searched when crossing the US/Canadian border – although we always get asked why we visited Pakistan/Afghanistan (my mom used to go nearly once a year back in the 90’s).

    We had out bags inspected by US Customs after a flight back from Afghanistan because my grandma checked off on the form that we visited a farm. Considering the abundance of opium there I’m not surprised…they were really quick and efficient though and did it in front of us.

  15. It’s a good thing you are not from Andhra Pradesh and didn’t carry gonkura leaves.

    The leaves resemble marijuana leaves but has no ill/druggie/strange effects when eaten. I don’t know if anyone was crazy enough to smoke it or what happens if it is smoked or snorted and don’t recommend that at all. I am completely against smoking anything, or burning raked leaves, flags because of horrible pollution but that is another story. It is the same family or something like that as cannabis sativa or whatever way it is spelled.) I prefer my gonkura in a toor dal or as a pachadi or pickle with rice and toasted sesame oil. I gave up eating it with ghee for health reasons but lots of people of Andhra origin would rather eat it with ghee because it tones down the tartness. So it can result in a temporary bliss while eating, but a suspicious border agent might not be inclined to believe that or want to hear about it.

    • I can see it confusing a guy in a helicoptor or sattelite imagery, which they do sometimes use to find illicit crops, but it’s hard for me to imagine someone who has been trained to find drugs being unable to tell the difference up close.

      For reference: gongura and cannabis.

  16. I wonder if TSA agents and other similar security workers change their gloves after going through the contents of a suitcase. During air travel, I had a suitcase checked by an agent because I saw a the little sign saying it was checked inside the luggage after reaching my destination. This happened a few years back a couple of times. I’m sure it happens even more frequently whether or not they leave their business card.

    I have never seen TSA agents change their gloves and I understand they need to work fast and efficiently., Subway employees change their gloves every time they make a new sandwich in most locations.). But what if the TSA agent handles a disgusting used granny cheddi or a soaking nappy or pick their nose and then handle your packed items that were freshly laundered? It might not be a health risk, but the thought is just downright gross. It’s is the price to pay for security, you can say.

  17. Driving from Montreal to Boston and crossing somewhere in Vermont, we were asked to come inside because we had a Bangladeshi in the car. The waiting room was filled with Muslims only, and after 5 minutes of uncomfortable waiting, I realized that I’d put on my last clean shirt that morning: a gift from a very panjabi friend featuring Bhindranvale in all his martial glory. I felt paralyzed for a moment, then begged to be let out to go and get a sweatshirt from the car (“its so cold in here, I’m freezing). Nothing happened, but I still worry that I was added to some list. (Its also ironic that I’ve received more questions coming back from Canada or Germany than returning from Afghanistan or Iraq.)

    • It’s easier to hide and sneak profitable quantities of drugs than it is to sneak around sufficiently large quantities of explosives or chemical/biological agents to do any appreciable damage.

      Plus, there’s more money in smuggling than there is in terrorism so presumably they probably attract people who are better at it through sheer experience as well as talent. Think about it, you recruit terrorists based on commitment to the cause rather than their expertise with doing their dirty deeds. Drug runners, though, get recruited based on their ability to run drugs. It’s much more entrepreneurial!

  18. My cousins sent some Wakkapadi(Betel nut) stuff for another cousin of mine when I was returning from India. The customs guy in NY looked at it weird, and I told him to throw it away if he felt like it as I did not like that stuff and it was merely meant to be a gift. THe guy merely shrugged and let it through. Another time, I was driving with a buddy to Montreal from Vermont and the cute customs lady asked me what I was going for. After giving her a few reasons after being asked “what else” , I replied to the next “what else” with “well, we are planning on sampling some of your delightful strippers in Montreal”. The cute french canadian border guard lady then replied with a smile “you should check out XYZ” She didn’t say XYZ but I forget the name of the place she mentioned. She then elaborated to my “what??” that it was place with cute strippers and since I was honest enough to give her that as one of my reasons she decided to help me out with a location much closer to the border. On the way back, I wasn’t so lucky. Some fat american borderguard who looked like the fat PE teacher from Porkys asked me a bunch of boring questions and took her own sweet time going to the next question with not a single pleasant expression on her face. But noo, I was never detained for weird stuff.

  19. OK, the Kinder Egg thing is so weird, because I’ve seen them for sale here in Seattle. Maybe the cool German meat store doesn’t realized they are BANNED. Hmm, I wonder if they could raise their prices and make more money on the vile things. The chocolate is awful, unfortunately, but the toy idea is cool.

  20. Oh, and last time we crossed into Canada at Blaine, WA, we got asked the usual questions – why we were going, how long we planned to stay, whether we had any firearms. And then the lady asked us if we had any guns at our house. We thought that was odd, and figured she was taking a poll for her own interest, to determine whether those crazy Americans all have guns in their houses.

  21. Isn’t it odd? People here always lambaste Americans for “not being able to look beyond color,” etc. Yet the first thing we do at a border crossing is look around and lament there is no person of color working there…!

    Double standard, eh? Those from the Desh know all about color-consciousness with no help from abroad, naturally.

  22. Every time. . . for the last 40 years (since my parents met!)

    The best sample: after 2 hours’ unpacking and haranguing about our two 25-pound bags of rice (apparently it can be used for drug-smuggling), a US customs officer noticed the word ‘parboiled.’

    Officer: “Wait. . . is that rice boiled?” Crafty Prakash-Uncle: “Uh, yes! Parboiled! Boiled!” Officer: “Well, that’s OK then! Go ahead!”

    …whereupon we had to repack the car, which took another hour. I hate Customs.