Officially in Cairo and back to my crazy grind. This also means that I am incredibly behind in my writing. This post is a bit of a back log so bear with me as I try to catch up before the chaos of work dawns.
It has been a crazy month and a half. My mum surprised me with a ticket back to California for a month at the start of July and I had to immediately clean and pack like a crazy human. My apartment is usually clean, but it was the reorganizing – the sorting of clothes of what to keep and donate, the packing, and all the other shenanigans that comes with it that was driving me a little bit crazy. It is seriously ridiculous how much “stuff” any one person can accumulate over the course of one’s life. It is horrifyingly scary. Considering also, I am not a hoarder by any means and I believe myself to be a fairly frugal spender. I cannot even begin to imagine how much stuff others may accumulate over the course of their lifetime. While being away for the month, my apartment also underwent some renovations – hence, the crazy cleaning and sorting. The engineer and workers did an amazing job and even finished a week before my arrival. Beyond grateful for my amazing and thoughtful landlord Nader, who always considers my comfort and possible needs, and for the engineer and workers for an amazing job done! Oy! Let’s get to the traveling!
On July 4th, I departed on a flight from Egypt to California, which took quite some time… a little over 27 hours. I flew from Cairo (CAI) to Rome (FCO) to New York City (JFK) with Alitalia, then finally to Los Angeles (LAX) with Delta. My flight from Cairo to Rome wasn’t too bad, a relatively short flight at around 3.5 – 4 hours, and a layover of around 3 hours and 40 minutes. There were no screens on the flight, but it didn’t matter much as we were scheduled to fly out at 03:30 in the morning; I pretty much slept like a baby, waking only to eat and exit the plane. Upon arrival in Rome, there wasn’t much to do at the airport. It was relatively organized and easily manageable with some music and writing.
The flight from Rome to New York City, which took around 9.5 hours, was a bit more… well, let’s just say “entertaining”. Once we all boarded, we were informed of a delay, something regarding security and safety checks, which lasted around 1.5 hours. When I boarded and sat in my seat, I quickly realized I chose the only seat with a nonfunctioning screen. It wouldn’t have mattered if the flight was shorter, but a 9.5 hour flight… Well, that would be a bit challenging. Luckily, when I informed the flight attendants, I was told the flight wasn’t fully booked and they would find another seat for me with a functioning screen. However, prior to my relocation, I met a little bit of a challenge with a family that was assigned to sit next to me.
For those who don’t know, I have tattoos, currently 9 in counting. Tattoos are a big part of my life, it’s another way in which I can express and tell my personal story. During my (fairly) recent trip to Malaysia, which stemmed from the end of December 2017 to the beginning of January 2018, I started my full sleeve; completing only half of it with a dragon and lotus flower on my right arm from an amazing artist Aric at Bloody Ink Tattoo. While waiting for the flight attendants to get back to me regarding my new seat, I removed my black jacket as the temperature in the plane during the delay was becoming a bit too warm for my liking. As a result, the tattoos on my arms were exposed – including the half sleeve. The family that was assigned to sit next to me seemed a bit uncomfortable, something that I can understand and sometimes experience from bystanders.
Tattoos can be a bit scary, especially if a person is not accustomed to seeing it in their immediate society or culture. Sometimes people see tattoos and link it to negative associations like gangs, criminal activity, and the likes. However, tattoos have been a part of human history for thousands of years, like the discovery of the 5,000+ year old “Iceman” with his 61 preserved tattoos, to modern day society where people of various backgrounds, genders, ages, cultures, and societies choose to ink themselves. Regardless of the size and intricacy of the design, tattoos are personal and serve as a form of story-telling, status symbol, and declarations of love, religious beliefs, or punishment.¹ Having that said, I can still understand how tattoos can make some people feel uncomfortable, and that’s precisely what happened on my flight to JFK.
The family that was assigned to sit next to me boarded the flight maybe 10-15 minutes after me. By then I was already pretty situated. I was merely waiting for word on relocating. The family of five – mother, father, and three boys, were walking towards the end of the plane and was busy looking overhead to check the seating numbers and letters. When they arrived at the end of the plane, the mother and three boys looked at me then at my exposed arm. I could immediately feel and see their hesitation and discomfort. This was shortly confirmed by their verbal exchange in Arabic. I’m sure they never anticipated that I would understand Arabic. I mean, let’s be frank, I am an Asian solo traveler, who identifies as Taiwanese-Chinese, who apparently doesn’t even look anywhere near like what most would consider to be Taiwanese or Chinese (or so I’ve been frequently informed of by family, friends and strangers). Albeit, I have been living in Egypt for 8.5 years in counting, but who would ever have guessed that from an initial encounter, let alone glance? Thus, they could never have known that I would understand their dialogue in Arabic, but I understood.
My tattoos made them nervous, so much so that they spent at least 10 minutes arguing over who would sit next to me. I was sitting by the window on the left side; there was one open seat to the right of me and four remaining seats in the middle section of the plane. The two other travelers who were Italian and tattoo-less, occupied the right. The mother asked one of her boys to sit next to me but they bantered back and forth about comfort until the mother demanded the youngest to sit next to me. When he did, I could feel the tension and discomfort fuming off of him. He avoided eye contact and adamantly tried not to accidentally touch me or the side of my seat – including the shared middle arm rest.
The father was non-communicative and nonchalant; he seemed preoccupied with storing their carry-on luggage. The mother helped her other two boys situate themselves, but she kept me in her view. Their discomfort intrigued me. When the father stored everything in the overhead, he sat in the middle aisle seat, the one to the right of the youngest boy sitting next to me. As soon as he did so, his youngest looked over and asked if they could switch seats. Without a word, the father stood up, which prompted the youngest to quickly jump and leap from one seat to the other. The father quietly moved next to me without even so much as a glance; his body language was relaxed and neutral. He didn’t seem the least bit bothered. Instead, he sat down, buckled up and immediately closed his eyes as if to sleep.
On the other hand, his wife asked her youngest why he switched seats. Before he could respond, the father, with his eyes still shut, simply waved his right hand, as if to signal for her silence. The mother stopped talking but she continued to peer at me well until our final takeoff – which happened nearly an hour later. During the wait, I lost count of the number of times the mother peered at me. At one point, I turned around and merely smiled at her to try to ease the discomfort; she looked away but continued to sneak peeks. Right before takeoff, one of the flight attendants returned and said he found another seat closer to the front with a functioning screen. I thanked him, put on my jacket, picked up my backpack, asked the father to be excused, smiled and moved myself. Before leaving, I glanced back, looking directly at the mother, I simply smiled and gave her a small nod. She seemed shocked but also relieved for the change in seating arrangement.
Traveling always throws me into a fit of contemplation – especially solo traveling. It gives me a lot of time to reflect on everything. This encounter with the family of five got me thinking, how many times in our lifetime do we jump to conclusions about the perceived “other”? Granted, we may not have been raised to do so, and our values and principles – wherever they stem from – may caution us against doing so, but how often do we heed the advice that is given to us? It also got me thinking, how does each judgment make the “other” feel? In another respect, what type of chain reaction do we set into motion when we exert our judgment onto the “other”?
I’d like to think that at the age of 30, I’m a wee bit wiser than in my teens and twenties, and my reactions hopefully more refined. If I had encountered the same family of five in my early twenties I’m sure I would have been more upset than intrigued. I would have spent time mulling over why they reacted in such a manner and then judged them as being unfair and wrong. I’m certain that my body language would have mirrored their discomfort but I would have also exuded annoyance with a general aura of negativity and aggressiveness. But in my current state of being, I know that that reaction wouldn’t have changed anything for the better. Instead, it would have prompted more discomfort and negativity for both of us. Ultimately, creating more distance away from understanding and compassion.
We judge because we lack information or knowledge; the “specimen” of our judgment often considered different, foreign, peculiar, or even alien due to the lack of, or artificial encounters. The metaphorical distance is exacerbated by the accessibility and usage of technology and media, where the artificial encounters of the “other” and its various constructs and implications (positive or negative) are fed to us in various monotonous and repetitious dosages. Unbeknownst to us, it often takes root in our subconscious mind and generates a perception that may seep into our everyday when we come face-to-face with the “other”; we then react without much thought or consideration of the repercussions. The response then cascades into a series of reactions that either reinforce or challenge our preconceived notions – in my limited experience, these usually reinforce rather than challenge, unless we willfully entertain the possibility that our preconceived notions are limited and maybe even built on an inaccurate foundation.
What does this have to do with the family’s reaction to my tattoos? Well, whatever their preconceived notions are about tattoos, it definitely didn’t seem positive. Even though they were non-confrontational, the verbal and nonverbal responses particularly from the mother and her three sons, implied a notion of distrust. My tattoos made them uncomfortable to a point where they argued amongst themselves about who would be the unfortunate one to have to sit next to me. Additionally, the mother’s constant peers at me suggests not only a feeling of discomfort, but also a feeling that her family’s safety may somehow be jeopardize. In other words, they might experience some kind of harm, most probable physical since we were going to be stuck in an enclosed space for approximately 9.5 hours. I’m pretty sure the family had no clue that I understood practically their entire verbal exchange, and they probably just assumed that I was off in my own world since I didn’t make it obvious or known that I understood – until maybe the very end when I smiled and nodded before excusing myself completely. Please keep this in mind, I will deter for a moment but I promise I will link back to this experience…
The flight attendant moved me to an aisle seat closer to the front of the plane in the section right before the business class seating. There were two American boys who seemed to be in their late teens or early twenties to my left, and two American couples, possibly in their late mid to late thirties in the middle seating section. The rest of the flight progressed rather smoothly. I slept for most of the flight, waking only to eat and drink water. Towards the end of the flight, I managed to stay awake long enough to finish one movie and one opera compilation.
Upon arrival at JFK, I had to go through immigration, pick up my luggage, recheck-in, and go through security again, before boarding my final flight to LAX. Did I mention the 3 hour and 40 minute layover? Anyways, as I exited the plane and TSA directed me to the automated machine to input my information and declarations. I then received a print out before going to the immigration officer at the counter. And this is where the fun begins…
I should probably preface that the last time I returned to the California was about 2.5 years ago in December 2015. I also had a long flight and two stops, from Cairo (CAI) to Amsterdam (AMS) to New York City (JFK) then finally Los Angeles (LAX). The last time I returned, I didn’t experience any problems at JFK but was detained, questioned and searched for around 3 hours at LAX before being released. The female TSA officer who questioned and searched me had the STRANGEST questions – not to mention some were highly inappropriate in my opinion. Given that experience, I had already prepped myself for another similar situation. And to no surprise, it happened, again.
After I completed the automated check-in, I waited in line for approximately 20 minutes before reaching the immigration officer at the counter. He took my passport and printed paper, fiddled around the computer, and asked a few questions.
Do you have anything to declare?”
“When was the last time you came back to the United States?
Why have you been out of the country for so long?
How long is your stay this time around?
I answered accordingly and was informed that I had to wait because I was being transferred to secondary where they would finish processing my passport. I asked if there was a specific reason for the transfer and he simply replied that he was unable to finish the processing. Another TSA officer had already been contacted to escort me. Since I had a 3 hour and 40 minute layover, which was now reduced to about 3 hours, I was hoping I would finish in time to pick up my luggage, recheck-in, and catch my final connection.
The TSA officer came shortly after and escorted me to secondary. I was first taken to the room on the left, which was maybe a fourth of the size of the room to the right. The TSA officer took my passport and I waited around 15 minutes, after which, they transferred me to the larger room to the right; I was one of 14 people waiting to be called in. A little more than half of the people waiting were Asian, presumably Chinese given the fact that I could understand their conversation. The other quarter or so of the people looked to be from the Middle East region or they were black. After sitting for another 15 minutes or so, another TSA officer appeared from one of the backrooms, took my passport and printed paper, then called me in. He took me to a smaller private room in the back where he sat behind a desk with a desktop and phone, stacks of papers, pens, and of course, my documents. I sat in front of him and waited for him to start.
I don’t recall the officer’s name, but he was much taller than me and rather muscular. Despite his rather domineering physique, he was quite friendly and warm in his expressions, tone of voice, and general demeanor. Often wearing a smile, he introduced himself and encouraged me to ask questions at any time before he began. The following questions asked were the most prominent. Other questions were socially, culturally, and touristy related to Egypt, or about the comparisons between living in the U.S. and abroad.
Where are you flying in from and what’s your final destination?
How long have you been out of the country? Where are you currently residing?
How long have you been living in Egypt?
What do you do in Egypt? Do you have the address for your work place and residence?
Which other countries have you visited in the last 3 years? Purpose of the visit?
You mentioned you’ll be in California. How long will you stay, with whom or where?
Do you have a contact number we can reach you at in case there is an emergency?
How about an e-mail address in case we need to contact you?
The officer questioned me for almost two hours, but this experience was considerably more pleasant than the last, which occurred in December 2015. He had a positive and friendly attitude, more general knowledge about Egypt, and did not ask me strange and inappropriate questions regarding my political affiliation, whether or not I use social media and my handles, or repeat the same/similar question 3-5 times, as if to imply that I am an idiot or lying. Since he had encouraged me to ask questions at any time, I was very curious to know why I had to be sent to secondary from the main immigration counter. So I asked him. His reply was satisfactory and much appreciated when I consider how the first TSA officer had questioned and answered me in 2015.
Apparently, if you leave the country for a “long” time then return, the government becomes curious as to your whereabouts. So they call you into secondary to inquire what you have been up to and where you’ll be staying in the country. In other words, in case you didn’t already know, the government is essentially monitoring you – citizen or not.
After nearly two hours, I was released and directed to the luggage belt where I picked up my luggage and followed the signs to check in for my domestic flight to LAX. I was able to make it to my flight about half an hour before departure. But my flight was further delayed for two hours due to a medical condition of one of the passengers. Eventually, after 27+ hours of flight time and transits, I made it to Los Angeles.
My second experience with TSA and being questioned in secondary got me thinking more about security, freedom, perceptions and stereotypes. These ideas have always been swimming around in my head, however, given the current political and social context of the U.S., it seems ever more important to address. To what extent can the promotion of “security” and “safety” justify unequal or preferential treatment of the “other”?
I don’t want to delve too much into politics, but I believe the topic is worth contemplating about. To make it more personal, how often do we, as individuals judge the “other”, and how much does that impact our thoughts, actions and words. Unequal or preferential treatment can come in many different ways. For example, consider the family of five who was supposed to be seated next to me on my flight to JFK. Although they did not directly interact with me, their feelings of discomfort and unease was definitely translated through their body language. Don’t get me wrong, I neither blame them nor feel upset. Instead, I wonder, how might we engage differently with the perceived “other” in order to minimize or even limit the distance created?
Similarly so, when I consider my experience with the female TSA officer in 2015, her attitude and the questions asked were quite accusatory and presumptuous. First, she lacked general knowledge about Egypt. Second, it was difficult for her to fathom that a twenty-something year old single woman would leave the seeming comfort of the U.S. to live in a country like Egypt. Given also the complicated social and political contexts of the region, she assumed that there was a possibility that I could either be easily influenced and persuaded, or I was in the region for purposes other than study or work. Some of her questions were not only highly inappropriate, but possibly even borderline illegal. These sentiments were made rather clear through her attitude, tone of voice, and questions.
Stepping outside of our comfort zones is tough, especially since society and media bombard us with positive or negative ideas of the “other”. This constant bombardment then latches onto our subconscious, which is then translated accordingly through our thoughts, actions, and words. If one is not conscious or critically engaged, it is very easy to fall into a vicious cycle of prejudice and fear. This has been made rather clear through my travels around the world. Now as my summer vacation draws closer to an end, these experiences continue to linger and I am also left wondering, as an educator, how might I incorporate these aspects of critical engagement into my daily thoughts, actions and words, and my classroom.
¹ Lineberry, C. (2007). Tattoos: The ancient and mysterious history. Smithsonian. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/