IF YOU WANT to terrify a small child, you say: “The boogeyman’s gonna getcha!”
If you want to terrify an adult, you say: “An Immigration Officer Class A (section II) civil servant is looking in your direction with a quizzical expression.”
These days adults of my acquaintance seem to be scared of people in the following order, from least to most frightening:
4) Escaped lunatics;
3) Serial killers;
2) George Bush; and
1) Immigration officers.
People in the first three categories can’t do you any lasting harm, other than beating you up or killing you. But immigration officers can make you suffer exquisite agonies of stress for long periods.
True story: a friend of mine went travelling around Asia this year with a new passport. There was a mistake on it—his date of birth was off by one day.
On arrival in Hong Kong, he was immediately arrested for “bearing a false document” and thrown into jail. No joke. Lawyers spent weeks getting him out.
So when I got a call from an immigration officer recently, I broke out into a cold sweat. The caller explained that there were serious inconsistencies in residence application papers I had filed for Grandma, who had overstayed her visa because she was too fragile to travel. “What sort of problems?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant. “Discrepancies,” the officer said. “Big ones.”
I shuddered. I wondered whether to save time by simply turning up at the nearest jail and asking to be directed to a cell. But then the immigration officer, a young woman, said something unexpected. “We may be able to overlook the problems. Bring all your papers and come in for an interview.”
I spent several days gathering every document I had ever signed, including my kindergarten paintings and the fingerprints taken when I was born, and turned up at the immigration offices.
A smiling officer said the department had decided to ignore the inconsistencies in our papers. Granny and her sponsor (me) were in the clear.
I was still marveling at this when I found myself on a trip to Australia. Airport officials in that country are normally highly suspicious of me, possibly because of my brown skin, Islamic name and tendency to joke about bombs. But on this occasion, the burly immigration officer was so friendly I thought for a moment he was going to hug me. This was followed by trips to Singapore and Beijing at which immigration officials fell on me as if I were a long-lost family member.
The climax came last week when one of my children lost her identity card and had to get a replacement. The immigration officer was not just friendly, but cool: she wore jeans, a black t-shirt and had spiky hair dyed blue.
What’s going on? The best theory came from a business traveler friend. “First, I think immigration officers realized they had a terrible reputation and are really working hard to fix it,” she said. “And second, they know they are among the few professions where everyone is still employed, and they want to keep their jobs.”
These days, if you want to REALLY scare an adult, tell him: “An Immigration Officer Class A (section II) civil servant is coming your way and wants to give you a hug.”
(Top illustration: PA)