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China (And Other) Border Guards. Hate ‘Em At Your Own Peril. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Posted in China Travel

When I was in BigLaw back in the Midwest, one of my favorite activities was engaging in Britt Airways stories with other lawyers during long pauses in depositions or hearings. I usually reeled out two stories. The first was how I once had to go from Bloomington, Indiana, to Minneapolis, Minnesota and how my luggage went to Bloomington, Minnesota and then, after I complained, was sent on to Bloomington, Ilinois. My other story involved two vomiting kids and angry passengers who blamed the vomiting (probably rightly so) on the pilot. My favorite story that happened to another lawyer was of a plane held up on the runway for hours and the lawyer constantly being denied the right to use the bathroom or go into the airport. Finally, he just walked off the plane, walked around 50 feet, did the deed, and returned to the cheers of everyone in the plane. Britt Airways, may it rest in the same place it always inflicted on its passengers.
Now that I’ve gone international, I love telling border guard stories and here goes:
1. I am in Busan, Korea, flying to Seoul, Korea, and then on to Seattle. I take a delicious looking apple from my hotel room, put it in my suitcase and start thinking of how much I am going to enjoy eating it during my long Seoul layover. Maybe 16-17 hours later, I land in Seattle, where a customs official asks me if I am taking any food in. I tell him no. He then asks me if I am sure and in a really frustrated voice, I tell him yes. He then asks if I am bringing in any fruits or vegetables or anything like that and in my most frustrated voice, I point out that fruits and vegetables are food, that I know they are food and that my answer is no. He then opens up my suitcase, points out the gorgeous apple, and tells me he can fine me $500. I then apologize (very nicely), explain how it is that I have the apple in my suitcase and of how I had failed to eat it, and tell him that if he wants to fine me, then all I can do is pay. I point out that I am from Washington and I understand the need to protect “our” apple crop. He lets me go.
2. I am flying from Seoul to Qingdao (why always Seoul?) and maybe 3/4 of the way through this short flight, I check my Chinese visa and I start sweating profusely. It was a one year visa (as I had thought), but it was a single entry visa, not the multiple-entry one I usually get. I land in Qingdao, make nice with the customs people there and convince them that it makes better sense for them to send me back to Seoul than to detain me in Qingdao.
3. I’m coming from Shanghai (or Beijing?) and I land 45 minutes late in SFO, making my connection to Seattle perilously tight. I bolt off the plane and customs (or was it security) decides to take an inordinate interest in me. About five minutes into the procedure, I ask them in as nice a tone as I can muster, whether there is any way they can speed it up so that I can catch my flight. Some guy responds in a pissed off voice that I should have gotten to the airport earlier. I very quickly and sarcastically respond by saying, “seeing as how I just got in from China, maybe you should be telling that to the pilot and not to me.” They then proceed to come up with about ten minutes worth of new questions on my trip and I miss the flight.
4. I’m coming from Canada to the United States, by car, and I answer yes to having citrus, but add that it is two oranges I bought in the United States and never ate while in Canada. I am told to drive my car to a spot and wait inside. I start to tell them where the oranges are, but they quite rudely tell me they do not want to hear it. About 20 minutes into their search, I ask someone at the desk whether it might not just make sense for me to tell them where the oranges are and I am again rudely waved off. About thirty minutes into the search, an officer comes in and not very politely asks me to tell him where the oranges are. And I just go to town. I remind him of how he had boasted that he could find them. I remind him of how I tried to help him and his cronies twice on finding them, but was assured they could find them themselves. I point out this was before they had turned my entire car and its contents upside down and inside out. I then ask him if I have any obligation to tell him where they are because I am by this point nearly done with my book and I have no problem sitting in this brightly lit room and finishing it. The officer stammers and essentially says they cannot make me tell them anything I don’t want to tell them but that they can stop me from entering the United States with the citrus. I then tell them I have no desire to take the citrus into the US and that I will let them know where the oranges are after I finish my book, if they have not found them in the meantime. Twenty minutes later, they come in with the two oranges, tell me they are seizing them and that I can go on my way. I smile and leave.
I could go on and on.
I thought of these stories today after reading a post by Cyndee Todgham Cherniak on the always enjoyable Trade Lawyers Blog. The post is entitled, “Treat Border Guards With Extreme Respect – Your Freedom Is In Their Hands,” and if I may grossly summarize it, it says you should be nice to border guards:

When travelling to the Canada-United States Border (or any border crossing for that matter), remember to be humble, remember to be respectful, remember that the border officers have great power. Have you been in the military? — remember to respond respectfully “Yes Sir”, “No Mam”. Do you remember spending time with your Grandmother? — “What can I do to be helpful?”. Do you have a demanding boss? — “Let me answer that question for you as best I can”.

Ms. Cherniak goes on to point out that “border officers have a lot of power and can send you straight to jail” and “a small disagreement can turn into criminal charges and that will cost you a lot of money and possibly your freedom.” She then backs this up with the example of Peter Watts, “a well known and respected Canadian writer.” Here is what transpired:

He [Watts] found himself in a disagreement at a U.S. border crossing and on March 19, 2010 was convicted of assault, obstruction and resisting an officer. The facts seem unclear — except that he and a border officer had a disagreement and the border officer overreacted. There were no illegal goods in Mr. Watt’s car and there was no border problem other than the disagreement.
Mr. Watt’s was arrested at the disagreement and he ensured the humiliation, stress and cost of a jury trial. In the final analysis, we has convicted and is yet to be sentenced — possibly up to two years in jail.

According to Watts, who wrote of the incident on his blog, the following occurred:

What constitutes “failure to comply with a lawful command” is open to interpretation. The Prosecution cited several moments within the melee which she claimed constituted “resisting”, but by her own admission I wasn’t charged with any of those things. I was charged only with resisting Beaudry, the guard I’d “choked”. My passenger of that day put the lie to that claim in short order, and the Prosecution wasn’t able to shake that. The Defense pointed out that I wasn’t charged with anything regarding anyone else, and the Prosecution had to concede that too. So what it came down to, ultimately, was those moments after I was repeatedly struck in the face by Beaudry (an event not in dispute, incidentally). After Beaudry had finished whaling on me in the car, and stepped outside, and ordered me out of the vehicle; after I’d complied with that, and was standing motionless beside the car, and Beaudry told me to get on the ground — I just stood there, saying “What is the problem?”, just before Beaudry maced me.
And that, said the Prosecutor in her final remarks — that, right there, was failure to comply. That was enough to convict.

Ms. Cherniak nicely analyzes the event as follows:

What strikes me the most is how the disagreement could have been avoided if Mr. Watts had appreciated the power of the border officer and just taken a more obsequious approach. I am not criticising Mr. Watts as I have friends and family members who could have been in Mr. Watt’s shoes. What I say to friends and family members is to let the border officers do their job and to help them do your job. If the individual crossing the border does not have anything to hide, they should just open their kimono (car doors, truck, hood, bags, etc.). Report all acquisitions outside the jurisdiction truthfully. Answer all questions truthfully and respectfully. If you do not understand a question say “I am sorry sir, I want to answer your question, but I do not understand your question, would you help me give you a responsive answer by clarifying your question for me?”

She then tells her own story, which no doubt will sound very familar to many:

This reminds me of my own disagreement at the border a few years ago. I was asked ‘Where do you work”. I said “Toronto”. I was then asked “Where do you work”. I responded again ‘Toronto”. I was asked again, “Where do you work”. I responded “downtown Toronto”. The officer then shouted at me, ‘Are you an idiot, where do you work? You are not answering my question.” At this time I tried a different approach, “I answered ‘I am a lawyer with Lang Michener”. The officer asked ‘Was that so hard?” I answered “No sir”. I then was passed through U.S. Customs and was allowed to board my plane. Phew, I could have landed in jail if I had not figured out the real question was “Who is your employer?”

Now I know most of you know this already, but I am going to remind you of it just the same, because when you most need to know this is when you are most likely to forget it, so here goes. The border officer, be he or she be in China, Canada, the United States, or anywhere else, has, for the most part, a pretty routine job and you do not want to be the thing that spices it up. Give them the respect they crave and treat them as nicely as you possibly can. Unless you want a jury trial with that.

  • Glen

    On the way back from a high school China trip in 1996 I neglected to check a small pocket knife. (How else was I going to peel all that fruit?)The Beijing airport security people (or was it it customs?) took the knife out of my carry on bag and asked me about it. I sheepishly replied that I forgot to check it. The guard replied that it was not possible to check it now. I apologized and said it’s fine if they need to throw it away. He measured the blade, talked it over with his colleagues and said they would have to keep it. I apologized again and they let me on my way.
    Just as I had moved a few steps away from the line, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The guard returned the knife to me and said, “you can keep it, just don’t open it on the plane.”
    The lesson: Be nice. If you sass security people, especially in a foreign country, you will reap what you sow. On the other hand, if you are nice you might get to keep that 2 kuai pocket knife.

  • L.C.L.T.

    The dangerous cocktail of arrogant, cocky, uneducated, Beck/Limbaugh worshipping American security apparatus employees these days makes for the US becoming more and more isolated in the future as people just say “F**k it, why do I need the hassle?”

  • http://etothen.blogspot.com Ian T. Frazier

    This is very informative and brings back many memories of my own border experiences…strange that one of my craziest was heading IN to Canada from the U.S.
    It was three of us, college buddies, a few years back. My old friend was driving the family van and in my humble opinion flubbed his interview, so we got pulled over and searched.
    I was in my pajamas the whole time and the guy was asking us if we had money clips, etc etc…we were actually NOT drug running and just visiting the countryside, but I guess we fit the demographic so they kept us waiting there awhile and had the dog sniff out the entire van.
    Needless to say, we had no drugs, nothing illegal, and no money! Then I found out my buddy had NO CALI ID, just his school ID from Long Beach City College where we had both attended. That ended up being the kicker that got us turned around, in the end.
    So we never made it to Canada, under the premise that “even if we LET you in, there’s no way your friend could get BACK into the US with a student I.D. alone.”
    It was as if they were doing us a favor, and in a way…they were. Still, I wish I had gotten to enjoy Vancouver; but a valuable lesson learned about respect and being smooth and honest with the first agent who interviews you.
    It cost us 2 hours of our time and we got turned around anyways. I was too tired to be pissed but I was frustrated and pissed at my friend for like two days. there’s border patrol power for ya!

  • David

    I have never found Chinese border guards or security people to be anything other than professional and efficient.
    The same certainly can’t be said for US immigration and TSA officials who without doubt are the most surly and unhelpful officials (on average, of course there are some nice ones) of any country I have ever visited despite the fact that I do always act politely towards them.
    I remember in Newark once asking a TSA official the question “Is the X-ray safe for film” and she screamed “I’m a woman not a man!” at me. She was so angry (despite the fact that I most definitely am not in the habit of appending “man” to my questions) that I thought I was going to be in real trouble. I never did find out if it was safe for film.
    I also tried to cross the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls and apparently my reason for wanting to enter the USA to “see the falls from the other side” was indeed most unusual and seemed to present them with such a problem that I ended up giving up and not entering the US at all.
    So, in essence I agree, you should always treat officials with respect because they do have the power to reject you entry or cause you to miss your flight but the USA could do with taking a leaf out of the book of other countries like Canada or New Zealand where I have always been treated with a smile.

  • Jay (a different one)

    Oh, the stories… My worst experiences with customs/immigration were in the USA, where the people were consistently rude and obnoxious, not just to me, but to everyone in line. Australia comes in a close second on the scale of rudeness, with an added bonus that they do their best to make the lines for non-Australians as long as they can.
    The biggest ‘risk’ in China is when I travel with my very cute baby. Usually, whoever carries her, is subjected to an endless search procedure, with shoes, jacket, socks (yes, and individually too, not in a pair) and various other items being repeatedly X-rayed (how many times do you need to scan socks to discount their security threat?). The main purpose for this spectacle seems to be to give the entire security staff the chance to come and have a look, touch, play with my baby. Once the ooh-ing and aah-ing is done, socks and stuff are returned and we can go. Happens pretty much every time. All very friendly but a hassle nevertheless.

  • http://www.guanximaster.com Jason Lau

    Dan – an entertaining article. Well done.
    I’ve had generally good experiences with Chinese customs and immigration personnel. The only questionable incident happened when security confiscated my less-than-100ml bottle of hand sanitizer before I boarded the flight. I could never get a reasonable explanation out of them, but in keeping with the wisdom of your post, decided it wasn’t worth disputing.

  • Dan

    “I have never found Chinese border guards or security people to be anything other than professional and efficient.
    The same certainly can’t be said for US immigration and TSA officials who without doubt are the most surly and unhelpful officials….”
    Sadly, this has been my experience as well. I much prefer going through immigration as a foreigner entering China than as a citizen entering the US.

  • Zictor

    What pisses me off the most about border guards (and you can throw consular staff in the bunch too) is that they hold so much power in this specific sense.
    They aren’t really powerful, in a more general content. But they ave all the power to totally screw up your plans by denying your visa, delaying you until you miss your flight or simply throwing you in jail.
    And because “customer service” doesn’t really apply here, there is nothing we can do about it.
    I wonder if people decided to avoid the US as the place to connect their flights there would be enough of a loss of revenue to make them try to change?

  • Pat

    I had a similar knife experience coming back to the US from China in 2002. I had forgotten that I had a ‘credit card knife’ in my wallet. I got through security in BJ and a second check at Narita. Got to LAX, had to go through immigration/border there, which took a while since I was with my new immigrant wife.
    That took a while. Then had to gather all of our bags and sprint to a different terminal to catch our domestic flight. Of course, LAX security found the knife and wasn’t pleased. Ended up just tossing it.

  • otherlisa

    Ask me about my recent experience with the TSA at SFO.
    On second thought, don’t. It will just raise my blood pressure.
    I’ve actually found most US Customs people to be just fine, however. The TSA, you know, this is what you get when you have a poorly paid, poorly trained privatized force of mall cops.
    I will say that, even before July 5, flying in Xinjiang can be a hassle. I bought a souvenir, decorative knife that I put in checked luggage while flying from Urumqi to Yining. I was told that it was not allowed because it was “not safe.” I’m like, do I look like Bruce Willis, I’m going to peel up the floorboards and grab the knife out of my checked luggage?
    I also got a ton of questions about my toiletries, which were all regulation little bottles.
    The heightened security is understandable, just be forewarned.

  • ADH

    It always pays to be nice and respectful to these people in China because in China you essentially have no rights.
    But in the USA, where I am a citizen with civil rights, I feel no need to go out of my way to be polite to these people, especially if they are being rude and/or stupid. The problem really is that too many Americans now have the sheepish slave mentality and are submissive to these morons because they just want to “make everything easier.”
    I’m usually the last person to ever cite Israel as an example to the world, but they get their airport security right. They hire educated professionals (FBI and secret service types ) and pay them well. I would rather pay a few bucks more for my plane ticket than have to deal with the idiots who work security at US airports these days.
    It’s a sad day for America when upstanding, well-educated professionals must act like wimps in the presence of common security guards because they are afraid of being imprisoned for exercising their rights.

  • Linda Q.

    I wish I had some great stories to add, but I don’t. But your stories and the comments did make me laugh and taught me a thing or two for the next time.

  • Alex

    Respecting those in authority is a given, as somebody mentioned, they have the power to mess up all your plans.
    But, the respect sometimes is a one-way deal. Take your author incident for example, as a normal law abiding person, getting asked/told to lie on the ground is NOT something one does automatically. Especially if you are a person who tends to try and keep your clothes clean by, well, not sitting on the ground. Asking WHY is a normal reaction and shouldn’t be met with the barrel of a gun or mace. Asking why should at least have a bit of effort of returned respect by telling you a reason, even if canned why they want you on the ground. Remember folks, I don’t live my life on the wrong end of the law, I’ve never been told in all my life yet to ‘get on the ground’.

  • Alex

    Had I not read point # 4 I would not have believed it. Hilarious!
    I landed in Atlanta in late 2002 amid heightened security having boarded at Heathrow. The immigration officer had been extremely rude to a young woman in front of me to the point were she was in tears. Apparently not having a daily itinerary was cause for refusing entry. Eventually she got through. Several Irish golfers (Who had hit the drinks trolley hard on the flight and were on their way to Florida) had seen the incident with the young woman and were not happy. We had taken nearly 2 hours to clear immigration at this point. When I got to the desk I had apparently written Georgia incorrectly, I had spelled it “Goergia.” The officer advised me of this to which I foolishly replied ” I did not realize I had to do a spelling test to get into the US these days….” One ripped up immigration form and 2 hours later I got through immigration.
    My cousin was in the UK Navy. Trying to disembark in SFO he was ordered back on board for answering “my sister married a guy from Chicago” to the question “any history of mental illness in the family?” on the immigration card. 2 weeks and no shore leave! True story.

  • neil

    I crossed the lao cambodia border in 2002. getting out of cambodia was ok, you then need to get on a boat across the water to laos checkpoint. Unfortunately however I fell off the boat in to the mekong river and my passport was soaked through, and the laos visa was literally smudged out of all recognition. They still let me in to laos, however, albeit for an additional payment.
    On the usa – I think being polite to border police is regrettably a prerequisite for entry. I have to say though that I detest the experience so much that it is enough to make me want to avoid travelling to the USA altogether.

  • David

    Just to back up the assertions that it’s a good idea to be pleasant to immigration officials, and also that US immigration as surly and unpleasant as can be…
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/8559732/Cruise-passengers-tell-of-seven-hour-security-revenge-nightmare.html