Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bordering on interrogation

One of my colleagues at the workshop noted that there are often many layers to a question. Why am I here? How did I get here? Do you start with the big bang, your grandparents, the bike you rode to work? We joke in my family that if you ask my brother Geek Guru what time it is, he'll tell you how the watch works. Part of figuring out the answer is figuring out where the questioner intends you start.

On my way back from Canada this morning I was briefly detained at the border so they could search my car. There was a piece of paper in the trunk that seemed to puzzle the agent at the crossing, I could see him pull it out and page through it, page through it again, go back inside and check something on the computer. Since I don't recall ever opening the trunk of my rental car, just tossing my bag into the capacious back seat, I have no idea what it was (and forgot to look when I got to the airport this morning!). [Memo to self, be sure to check the trunk of a rental car before you take it across a border - there could have been a body in there and would have had no clue.] I was directed to pull over, hand over my documents and wait inside while another agent searched the car.

A second border agent appears, bullet proof vest on, bristling with weaponry, brandishing an unwelcoming expression, "Is everything in the car yours?" I hesitated. Yes, to the best of my knowledge, but no way did I search the rental car as thoroughly as he was about to, and I had driven others around, so I really don't know what might be tucked under the seats, and was utterly clueless about what was in the trunk. I really didn't want to say an unequivocal "yes" but knew equivocating wasn't a good idea: "Yes."

"How did you get to Selkirk College?" "I took a plane from Philadelphia to Spokane, rented a car and drove up here," I responded. He looked at me like I was giving him attitude, sighed and said, "No, why did you come there from so far away?" Oh. I told him I knew a colleague there, another chemist, and that she had invited me. There were a few more questions about that, and he went out to search the car. They found nothing and returned all my documents and my vehicle and off I went.

The border agent and I are both nominally native speakers of the same language, and yet I did not understand his question, and so he did not understand my answer to be a serious one. How much more difficult would this be if we did not share a language? How quickly would he lose patience, and what would the consequences of that be?  Particularly interesting questions on a weekend where the assigned readings speak of responsibility to our neighbors.

Photo is from Wikimedia.


  1. I think you are a suspicious looking character! :) I'm going to the U.S. in a few weeks for an RCIA seminar. I'll let you know if three church women have trouble crossing the border.

    1. Crossing the border at 5 am might not have been the best idea.... May your crossing be smooth!!

    2. Michelle, timing is everything. We will be hitting the border mid-day on a Sunday - how much more innocent can three church women look!!