How Not to Clear American Customs

This anecdote is from an email-blog my friend M sends out on days we are lucky. M is a delight to read, and I want to quote his posts frequently, but my native lassitude gets in the way of all that onerous copying and pasting.

The anecdote he recounted this morning, however, was far too amusing — and terrifying — not to share. Especially since it fulfils the prediction he had made about his return to the US exactly.  “If I land in a kurta”, M had said, “I will definitely be pulled out for further questioning”. And he was.

Indices are scary things.

[For reference, M is what is colloquially referred to as ‘white’, and has grown up to a large extent in the United States.]

Reached Boston airport Tuesday evening, walked into the customs hall. The two people on the plane selected for extra enquiries were me and the one brown-skinned man in the crowd. Agents plying the queue swooped on each of us. Mine asked for my documents, then, “Where’d you get that shirt? India? Pakistan?”

“I got it at Gariahat in Kolkata, India.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge.” This is nominally true, as I do hold a visiting appointment there – and trying to explain the whole truth that I recently completed an appointment in India and have an offer from Uni X but have been shortlisted at Uni Y, well, such complexity would only get me into trouble. One of the practical facts that I learnt in India is that the story most consistent with appearances can be more important and more effective than the actual facts – especially when dealing with the authorities.

“I thought it had to be some kind of government work,” said the agent, handing back the passports.

Welcome to America, where if mainstream behaviour isn’t your ambition then there’s something wrong with you, because to be truly democratic is to be truly average.


(I should add here that as a brown woman in jeans and a kurta, I’ve never been held up.)



  1. If one was to insert a “below” between the words “truly” and “average” in the above snippet, then, we might have been discussing India rather than the US.

  2. I’ve never worn a kurta or sari while passing immigration. But once I had mehendi on my hands and that became a talking point because the officers were convinced I had gone back to have an arranged marriage :).

  3. Ah yes, passing the inspection. The first items Ravi and I imported were musical instruments and drums. I ended up with my first sitar, the drums were full of stuff and Ravi ended up in custody in New Delhi, a big scandal in 1970. From that moment I’ve played “invisible banker”. My passport photo was in a lightweight pinstripe I’d take strictly for that purpose, changing in the bathroom before disembarking, gold-plated Cross pens, carry-on packed like a valet. Only once was it tested. Changing, I’d absentmindedly stuck a tiny pipe in my front pocket and by God, the Logan dude spotted it. “Hey what’s this?” Gathering my wits “that’s what I was going to ask you; I just found it in the bathroom. Looks like a souvenir. Any place I can turn this in?” “Oh, yeah, this is called a hash pipe, some kid probably discarded it but since it”s on you, you’ll have to pay a fine. That’s all.” “A fine?” “Ah, never mind, I’ll say a passenger left it, thanks!” He never thought to slice open that Harvard tie I was wearing … the same one in the photo of course. Bhumi Shanker!

  4. Yes racial profiling at airports is a reality. Homegrown terrorism is also a reality. But if you really consider who would cause harm to you, would you rather be fair or safe?

    But look… In many countries, people won’t be able to complain about racial profiling. Tyler perry would spend the night in jail, instead of tweeting the police pulled him over for making an illegal turn thinking he was driving a stolen Porsche. Ditto with mammootty or shahrukh khan.

    America is one of the least xenophobic countries in the world where even in redneck neighborhoods far more people are welcoming toward people who don’t look like them. While bigots cannot be eliminated, the overwhelming majority of americans take pride in diversity. One of the first books that my son got in school was “rainbow of friends”.

    If Indians were truly being persecuted and discriminated against since they don’t appear to be average, our median income would not have been 40 grand more than non Hispanic whites. So frankly, I wouldn’t mind if I were held back by TSA for an hour but I wouldn’t be held back in life in America.

  5. Dalia, in my opinion “Would you rather be safe or sorry?” is precisely the sort of flawed thinking that leads to ill-thought-out — and consequently rather inefficient and irksome — ‘safety’ procedures employed by most administrations. Even if we accept that a particular sort of ethnic wear does indeed index questionable intentions towards national security, a person with a specific ethnocentric, religious or cultural vendetta against the US (or any other nation, really) is hardly likely to advertise his or her intentions by dressing in suspiciously conspicuous ways at international checkpoints.

    (I’ll leave the issue of wage demographies alone for now.)

  6. 1. It’s not the kurta. It’s you. Surely you know that your inbox is tracked by homeland security.
    2. I almost always get special treatment. Brown man travelling alone on an Indian passport with multiple Israel visa stamps on it is a very red flag. But my worst experience was in Toronto, not in the homeland.
    3. Yes, double-bluffing is unlikely. So pretending to be Sherlock Holmes while looking at jaded passengers for 10 milliseconds is hardly of any practical use.
    4. I’ll not leave the issue of wage demographics alone. Indian immigrants to the USA are highly self-selected as well as filtered by multiple systems for ambition and professional qualifications. Comparing their median income stat to that of all non-hispanic whites is apples-to-oranges. If you compare that stat with median income of the most ambitious white doctors/engineers/bankers/entrepreneurs, the 40K delta would disappear. If there is any delta, it’s likely to be in the opposite direction because of network and homogeneity advantages.

  7. it is almost exactly 17 years that I have lived in the new york area. I can say with absolutely no doubt in my mind that uniformed officers, at least in NYC, are here to keep me safe. with no expectation of monetary benefit to them. i wish I could say the same about uniformed officers in india in general.
    the median income includes doctors and other professionals no doubt, but it also includes thousands and thousands of cab drivers, restaurant workers, motel workers, gas station attendants who are of indian origin as well.
    btw, when you take public commute in NYC, people of all ethnicities are randomly stopped if they are carrying big bags, and looking like they are not doing their usual route. to walk around the train looking like you are up to mischief, kurta or not, will bring in suspicion.
    again, in america there are no barriers to opportunity otherwise there would not be so many successful indians in all walks of life. so, if there is a brief delay in entry because of TSA, i will happily take it. i know even if there is a problem, my rights are protected on american soil.


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