I gave up hoping for a quick check through the immigration when the officer from the Department of Homeland Security put my passport into a red folder and motioned me to step aside and wait. Out of thousands of passengers arriving in LAX that day, I was one of the lucky ones who had to go through a secondary screening.
The first time I was selected for screening was two years before in Minneapolis-St Paul airport. It was quite a stressful experience. Instead of stamping my passport and welcomed me to the United States, the DHS officer kept my passport and told me to go to a waiting room. When I got there, there were dozens of frazzled people with cluelessness in their tired faces, and a stout, middle-aged, stern DHS Officer who was over his head trying to maintain order in the room. When I came up to him to ask whether I was in the right place, he turned to look at me, point a finger to a row of seats, and in an angry voice said, “SIT!”
It must have been difficult for the officers, too. They had to deal with hundreds of screened passengers, most of who might have difficulties to communicate in English. Looking back at that day now, I understand why the officer had to speak to passengers in short, monosyllabic sentences. It was easier to say with authoritative tone, and easier for foreigners to understand.
But in that day, that was enough to send my adrenaline level way up, and changed me from confused to distressed.
So two years later, when I was told to wait for an officer to interview me, all the harrowing memories came back to my mind. My heart rate began to climb up in antiipation of what was coming at me.
And then, I was surprised.
The DHS officer was a young man, probably in his late 20s, with a unconcerned air about him, and an easy attitude. He greeted my with a smile, and began to check through my data in his system. “Sorry, the system sometimes freezes up on me,” he said apologetically when he had to wait for a few moment for the computer to respond. And while waiting, he made a Donald Duck voice.
Suddenly I felt the tension inside me dropped like a stone.
“Now, I will ask you some quetions to update your information in the system,” he said, in a serious tone. “Okay, first question: are you a man?”
I must have given him a funny look, because the other officer in the next cubicle turned to him and chuckled. “Hey, what if he said ‘no’?” the officer asked with a laugh. Then my interviewer replied earnestly, “In that case, we’re gonna have a biiiiiiig problem!”
I never had a more pleasant time with any other border inspection officers anywhere. I was still smiling when I joined my fellow travelers beyond the gates. And I am still laughing whenever I remember that incident.
I learned two things from that experience.
1. You can have fun while doing a very serious job.
2. When you have fun at your job, other people will be more willing to cooperate with you.
And one bonus lesson:
Have a sense of humor. Life is difficult enough as it is. Why not live it with a happy heart?