As much as I love working in both parts of the world, I hate taking flights that are connecting them. I often cannot sleep for several nights before embarking on the journey, experiencing anxiety attacks in anticipation of Kafkaesque absurdity and humiliation. And mind you, I am white or Caucasian, as they call us. If I would be of any other race, I would probably drop my travel plans all together!
Arrive in Auckland, main gateway to New Zealand, and you will be welcomed by enormous line in front of immigration booths, especially if you are coming on one of the morning flights. After 20 minutes you begin to wonder why it takes so long to process two or three jumbos coming from Asia. As you come closer, you will slowly begin to comprehend.
“You live here, don’t you?” barks male immigration officer after noticing several New Zealand entry stamps in my passport. “Pardon me?” I look puzzled. He stares at me, bluntly. It is 7AM and I want to send him to hell, but that’s what he is waiting for. One error and I will end up in one of the lines reserved for suspected criminals, terrorist; whatever. Then all my bags will be opened, lining detached; each page of my notebooks scrutinized. “No, I don’t live here”, I reply quietly, avoiding the trap. ‘Maybe I forgot to add “Sir”. They like being called sir’, I am thinking, but it is too late.
His face relaxes; he almost smiles. That’s it! He achieved what he wanted. He writes something on my immigration and customs form, stamps my passport and I am off to that line at the very extreme right, where poor and mostly non-white victims spend hours explaining who is their mother and who was their grandfather and why on earth they decided to come to this world and what brought them to the distant shores of freedom, democracy and prosperity. If one decides to adopt more positive approach, it is possible to arrive at conclusion that the situation is not truly unique: something similar could have been experienced before collapse of the Soviet Union at arrival hall of Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport.
“Look”, I say to enormous Polynesian man who is put on my case. “Let’s make it easier on both of us. I am not here because I am suspected of smuggling drugs. I am not a member of Al-Qaida. Trust me.” I just told to the face of the immigration officer that his questions were irrelevant. I am entering New Zealand and he wanted to know what exactly I was doing in Japan.
That was easy, unbelievably and unusually easy. It normally doesn’t work like. I thank the officer and join the line with the others, those who ‘do not represent the danger’. This is of course not the end. All luggage, all luggage, has to be x-rayed. That’s another 40 minutes in line. Nobody complains. To complain is dangerous; one can be overheard and pulled to the side and checked again. Entering New Zealand or Australia feels like entering police state.
In Brisbane, one word, one mistake, and you will be spending hours by being interrogated and searched. Several detectives are standing behind the immigration booths; scrutinizing passengers in line, looking for those may appear ‘suspicious’.
I just can’t shut up. I tell them once in a while what I think about their methods. As I have nothing to hide, I let them go through all my belongings, let them ask me hundreds of irrelevant questions: in Auckland, in Brisbane, in Guam. Somebody has to tell them, after all. Not that they care.
I work all around Pacific Rim. Distances in Asia and between Pacific Island Nations are enormous. One single flight can often take 10 or even 12 hours. It is very important to feel good about the place you are returning to, place that you consider being your temporary or permanent home. Like many others, I choose to have my temporary home in Southeast Asia, not in Australia or New Zealand. Ironically, I feel much more tied by rules and regulations there; much more ‘not free’ in Australia and New Zealand than in several countries in Southeast Asia. It is not a scientific conclusion. Not something I am trying to pass as a political analyst. That’s how I feel: nothing more and nothing less.
After experiencing humiliation at Australian airports, I wish some Asian travelers would write to campaign managers what they are often discussing after returning to their countries: “Well, we are still here, but unwilling to eat your crap, mates! Get some manners, scale down your racism, put candies on your immigration counters, learn how to welcome your visitors… and we will be back.”