I am sure that having flown out of sleek, modern facilities in Asia linked to nearby cities by fast, convenient public transportation, the tourists were unprepared for what it means to be truly free. The advertisements now included in the plastic TSA security bins drove home the American government works for the people, not corporations. Still, many foreigners seemed confused as to why they had to semi-disrobe to board a plane.
Was removing shoes at the airport some sort of American custom? Even the Japanese, who are shoe-removing fetishists, seemed unsure about wearing only socks to trod upon a filthy public floor. Then came off belts, jackets, jewelry and stuff in pockets. The foreigners, some from Commie Red China where the government controls their every action, were worried pants might be next, but quickly found out we Americans would never bow to a bully government like they had to do at home. Instead, we all waited in long, slow lines for our chance to appear before a petty government official with blind power over us.
One thing that distinguishes our international airports from those in many other third world countries is the near-exclusive use of English. Few Americans appreciate the efforts we go to as a nation to provide these gratis tutorial sessions. A curious fact is that American airport workers seem to believe that anyone can speak English if it is blasted at them loud enough and s-l-o-w enough. Idiomatic phrases, such as “ I SAID, liquids in a baggie, 3:1, ya’all, c’mon, people are waiting behind you” are also taught. American passengers often helped out by advising foreign visitors of how to manhandle their laptops, tear open wrapped gifts, disassemble iPods, pour out big bottles of perfumes and bottled water foolishly purchased earlier in the airport and the like.
As part of America’s commitment to equal treatment for all, I was somehow again selected for random additional screening. It was a good thing, as it meant at least I was still not on the no-fly list. The random part started when the helpful TSA employee scribbled something on my boarding pass and would not tell me what it meant. See, even though I am an American, I too could be treated with scorn. The foreigners, all of whom I could see did not get chosen by Das Selection, seemed impressed. In what other country could the son of a simple tradesman be singled out to represent what is now our America to the world?
My random extra screening included removing a Chapstick from my pants pocket, and opening it in front of the TSA person as proof it was not terrorist balm meant to moisten one’s lips before shouting “Allah hu Akbar!” Like with the foreigners, the TSA gent spoke English loudly to me, as if to reaffirm loudly we are all equal here in America. He also “asked” that I remove and open my wallet in case it included a very thin gun. In some countries that might be seen as a sleazy request for a bribe, but here we all understood it was just bullying by a public servant. I think when Mr. TSA Employee of the Month saw I had a major credit card was when he knew I was “A-OK.” But not before swabbing my hands for explosives.
The Chinese tourists watching all this no doubt remembered the great American cowboy movies they had seen, where men settled things with violence, and smiled seeing how far we had come. As a culture that revers its elders, the Chinese also noted how, after discovering a typo in the name on a boarding pass, TSA sent an elderly woman back to the airline counter for a new one even though she said that would cause her to miss her flight. Not all governments around the world understand they are there to serve the people, not themselves.
Overall, as I reassembled myself alongside the many visitors sweating and yammering in foreign tongues about how much freedom we Americans enjoy, I could not help but feel proud. Travel and tourism builds bridges, and lets visitors see a people for what they really are. As those modern-day explorers returned to their repressive, petty and inefficient governments at home, I knew that they had at least once, briefly but certainly memorably, breathed free air alongside me.
BONUS: The foreign visitors no doubt also enjoyed the airport’s retro-touches, which evoked the Golden Age of air travel of the 1950s and 1960s. The lack of WiFi, just like when their parents first visited America, the two electrical outlets serving an entire wing of the airport, the toilets which appear to have not been cleaned since 1950 and the “Welcome Home Troops” signs reminiscent of those displayed for soldiers coming home from the Korean, Vietnam and other wars, all harken back to simpler times.
Photo by Sam Ley under Creative Commons license