Ashley / Travel

A Thin (Immigration) Line Between Frustration and Empathy

Screaming children, an aisle littered with food cartons and tissues wadded with spit, and very weary service people – not what I would expect on an international Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to New York. Alas that is what I faced for a good 14 and half hours. Needless to say the flight was…frustrating.

I’m not sure if an entire village simply decided to board a plane in Hong Kong and high tail it to the States. But my usually plush and pleasant experience with Cathay, complete with smiling flight attendants and an individual movie screen at my seat, was brought to a full-stop as I was trapped with, what felt like, the worst representation of Mainland China.

I struggle with the idea of “me” vs. “them” often in China as cultural differences, especially in the realms of acceptable noise level and hygiene, which can differ greatly from what I learned to be acceptable as a kid. Of course its different than what I’m used to, but I can usually get over it because I’m on someone else’s turf.

However, when I’m bluntly met with differences in an environment that is usually relatively quiet and extremely hygienic, I have a hard time not making negative cultural comparisons. I try to be patient with the lacking “indoor voices,” to ignore loogie hawking, and to stomach a blatant disregard for rules when I’m visiting (and soon to be living in) China. But when you’re on an airplane (an expensive one at that), and the flight attendant instructs you in your language more than once that your sleeping child cannot sleep in the middle of the aisle because a) its against regulations and b) she’s going to get stepped on, you can’t really plead cultural differences or language mis-understandings.

Leaving the plane, blissfully happy to have landed, I was whipped to the other side of the “reaction-to-Chinese-culture” spectrum. From blood-boiling frustration at my neighboring passengers for stealing my precious hours of uncomfortable airplane sleep to sheer empathy for their own personal struggles in embarking on US border control.

It still amazes me, through all my travels, that the border that I feel least welcome in is that of my own home country. We waited for almost two hours in the immigration line at JFK. I was quickly over my annoyance from the flight (and silently mourning the recent loss of my beautifully efficient HK residency card that minimizes entry to a two-minute process) as I crawled to the front of the line.

There, one of the woman who I mentally cursed for at least 12 of the 14 hour flight entered into the customs desk and was immediately sent away. She floundered in the queue area not being able to answer the questions of the immigration agent and was obviously upset. Because none of the women running the line understood her she was sent back into the queue directly in front of me. I asked her in my butchered Chinese whether she was a US citizen and she showed me her resident’s card. She walked to the desk again and was immediately turned away by the same agent from before. Being the next person in line I asked the immigration officer what was wrong, he said that he couldn’t speak with her because she didn’t speak English. The woman needed a translator. As he was processing my request I asked if I could go help her, and explain that to the officer manning the line, because she was literally walking in circles around the custom line. He told me, “No, you’re finished here.”

I wasn’t about to take up any sort of argument with the godlike border control of the US so I did as I was told. But I was more than a little upset with the fact that there was no cultural empathy for this woman. She is a resident of the US, she waited in line, patiently, for two hours like the rest of us. She deserves to understand why she was repeatedly being turned away. I think of all the countries that I’ve been to in this year. Most of those trips where to China and each time I’ve crossed the border, not knowing a lick of the language, I’ve been treated with nothing but respect.

So all in all, a bit of a schizophrenic flight, I was reminded that people matter regardless of how insanely baffling their actions might be, and they should be treated with patience and respect. Oh, and a side note, I do applaud Cathay’s crew on my flight. They kept their cool and Cathay’s good name in my books. Perhaps the staff at the JFK airport could learn a thing or two from them.


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