Shed prejudice at passport control

March 9, 2007

Waiting at the airport to be allowed to enter the US, Kevin Fong discovers that there is someone guilty of cultural stereotyping...

George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston. The passport control guy beckons me over and I step nervously forward past the yellow line. This is the start of a six-month sabbatical in the US, and it would be a shame to get chucked out before setting foot in the laboratory.

I'm trying to make a good first impression but haven't quite decided whether to greet him with a cheery smile or a more sober, neutral expression. This momentary indecision costs me dearly, leaving me the appearance of someone with a severe facial palsy as I mumble "hello".

"What is the purpose of your visit? Business or pleasure?" This is an interesting question. I'm not a businessman, in the sense that my purpose here is not to sell a truckload of widgets, and what I'm here to do you could call work but it really is much closer to pleasure than it is to business. I consider pointing this out but decide against it. "Business," I say.

At this point the guy behind the desk experiences the first of several episodes of cognitive dissonance. I know from experience that he is mulling over the fact that I am Oriental in appearance but speak with an English accent. In the pause that follows, I feel tempted to point out that roughly a third of the population of the planet looks like me and that some of us happen to have been born and educated in Her Majesty's United Kingdom. But this bloke is full of coffee and doughnuts, pissed off and armed. Levity, I decide, would be an error.

Next comes the "What is your occupation?" bit. I say "doctor", he says "doctor of what?" and I say "doctor of medicine". To judge by the raised eyebrows, he doesn't entirely believe me. "And what will you be doing here?" he continues. I decide to stick to generic statements as I'm not sure he can handle the truth. "Research," I say. But that is not enough, he wants to know where. I tell him that I will be working at the Johnson Space Center. "You work for Nasa?" he asks dryly. I do this idiotic smiling and nodding thing that adds no extra credibility.

"And what research will you be doing?" There's no easy way to break it to him, so I let rip. I tell him that I am here working with the Human Adaptation and Countermeasures Division, investigating artificial gravity in preparation for future manned missions to Mars. His eyebrows have now moved so far up his head they are lost somewhere in his hairline. Basically I could have said "I'm Darth Vader", and he wouldn't have believed me less.

There is an interminable pause, while he taps away at his computer keyboard, frowning all the way, doubtless looking for me on a list of America's Most Wanted. "You seem to come here quite a lot." More tapping of keys and a longer pause. I'm suddenly desperate. He's got me all wrong, I want to say something to help things along, to show him that I am on side.

I want to let him know that the wet liberal days of my student youth are behind me and that I'm prepared to get a proper haircut.

And then suddenly it occurs to me that I have no foundation for this paranoia and that the only person guilty of cultural stereotyping here is me. He stamps my passport, looks up and hands it back to me. "Enjoy your visit, Dr Fong," he says with a broad smile. "Welcome back."

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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