When traveling across borders, there’s always that thought that there might be a bit of miscommunication with the language differences. However, I’m not sure language is the main contributor to these little holiday travel faux pas.
This past week was Mid Autumn festival, a time for moon cakes and lanterns and family time.
Give the recent, new addition to the family, my baby daughter, we decided to venture across the China border to Shenzhen to visit some family over there and introduce them to the bouncing baby girl.
We decided to take the whole gang along: wife, son, baby daughter, father-in-law, and myself. We were expecting an endeavor, that’s for sure. Battling through wall-to-wall holiday travelers, while bringing two kids on a long ride of various transportation methods (bus, to train with a transfer, and then a taxi).
It was a two and a half hour trip, door-to-door, with plenty of room for spontaneous chaos. And sure enough we got it. Son wanted to run around like mad in the chaotic Shenzhen train station. Daughter cried through most of lunch and the entirety of one the bus rides, but was inexplicably a perfect angel between those times. We were happy to see our family again and finally introduce baby daughter to them. It was nice seeing them as always. But it was an endeavor indeed.
Still, it was two moments while going through customs that made us go hmmm, when we looked back at the most exhausting holiday lunch trip in recent memory.
“Wait! Is that child with you too?”
As we were heading towards Shenzhen, we went to the passport check all together. My wife handed all the passports and Hong Kong ID’s to the customs lady. Wife was standing by my son, who was in one stroller, and I was standing behind my daughter’s stroller holding on to the handles the whole time. The Customs Lady checked my wife’s passport, then mine. She stood up to look down at the kids, asked my wife for my son’s name. All seemingly smooth. She then handled the stack of passports and IDs back to my wife and motioned us to move along.
As shuffled our family, carriages, and stuff past the booth and the family behind us started taking their clan into the area in front of the customs check, suddenly the customs lady yells,
We freeze in our tracks. Did we forget something with her? Then she looks down at my daughter in the carriage in my hands.
“That child, is she with you too?”, the customs lady asks.
I managed a simple “yes” and a look of, “well, yeah, that’s pretty obvious, right?”
The customs lady asked for her paperwork again. She looks through it. As she’s doing this, we’re in the middle of the way, since it’s one path for two customs check booths. We’re blocking people from the other booth. The family behind us are looking at us like “WTF.”
The customs lady asks for my daughter’s name, I tell her. Another customs officer comes over to check what’s the problem. Finally the customs lady lets us continue passing and gives us back our documents.
It didn’t actually take that long. Just a few moments of random awkwardness, but it got me thinking afterward, how could she not have thought my daughter was with us? We gave her my daughter’s passport, I’m standing right behind the carriage holding onto the handles the while time she is checking our documents, and then when we’re going, she asks “is that child with you too?”
You mean the child that is so obviously with us that I’m pushing her around in a stroller right in front of your face the whole time? Are you kidding me?
Did she just not see the stroller or that there was a child in it or did she think that I was just holding onto the child of the family behind us? We’ll probably never know. It’s possible the holiday rush got her frazzled or maybe she needed another cup of coffee at that point. I know I needed a cup of coffee at that point, and a shot of whiskey while you’re at it.
On the way back to Hong Kong, we figured that we would learn from the previous incident and try something a little different. The customs lady seemed to have gotten confused by the sheer number of people and passports we handed her, so this time I would go with my son and his documents. My wife would go with daughter and her documents. We would go as two groups.
As we approached the customs check, we planned to go one after another. I’m not sure how it happened, but a British couple ended up in between us. We figured, no. Big deal, we’ll be done pretty quickly after each other.
Wife went with daughter to the customs guy and went quick and smooth, no incident. Then the British couple in front of us went for their passport check…. but something was up. The customs guy was scrutinizing over their paperwork longer than usual. Another customs officer walks over and they confer with each other. Meanwhile my wife is waiting, wife daughter, over in the area where it says, “please don’t wait long here, keep going.” I already see another customs officer, some older guy in I uniform, approach her and ask her to keep moving, but I see my wife motioning with hands and arms that they’re still waiting for us to be done, not get separated and all that sort of thing.
Eventually, the British couple gets asked to go to “The Booth”.
I don’t know if that’s what it was actually called, but it was a elevated booth, above the rest of the other customs checkpoints, with two more officers up there. As they are being escorted up there, I can hear the young, British lady saying “I don’t know what the problem is.” Well, hopefully they managed to describe to them the problem before they pulled out the rubber glove and told them to relax.
As the customs guy gets back to the booth to finally check our documents, I hope I won’t have to suffer the same fate, especially since it would mean carrying my son in stroller up the steps to The Booth, which by this point, I had not the energy to do.
The customs guy looks over the paperwork and asks me to say my son’s name. I say it. He asks if my son has a Chinese name. I say he does. He asks me to say it. I try my best to say it with the right tones. I assume I failed, though.
The customs guy asks me if I could write my son’s name. The spontaneous sound that came from me, I could only describe as half scoff, half “are you kidding me?” laugh, and half trying to hold it all back and failing. I know that’s a lot of halves, but this was a big reaction to his question. And all while saying “no no no no no no no.” As I was saying it, it occurred to me that I probably should give it the old college try to learn how to write the characters of my son’s Chinese name, but I had bigger worries at hand.
The customs guy’s facial expression when from immediate surprise to confusion to “hmmm, sounds like someone needs to go to THE BOOTH.”
I immediately recover composure and point out my wife. “My wife knows how to write it.”
“YOUR WIFE?!” he says. I don’t know why he put so much emphasis in saying that. It’s like the combination of confusion western guy, child with Chinese name, Western guy who doesn’t know how to write child’s Chinese name, and shock that a female may have procreated with Western guy to create this enigma child had all come together into a perfect storm of emotion response.
“Yes, she’s right over there,” I said as I pointed our my wife, still waiting over there by the exit to the customs area, wonder what’s the hold up.
“HER?! YOU’RE SAYING, SHE’S YOU’RE WIFE?!”, he responds. It was like whatever emotional outburst had formed from the initial “You’re wife” had picked up steam and multiplied exponentially. As I looked over to see what could be so shocking about me pointing out my wife standing with baby carriage, I got a possible clue as to why the customs guy’s response had been so fervent. The customs officer that stood guard, telling people to keep moving and not wait there had changed shifts. The officer that was standing there now, was not the older guy from before, but this tall, beautiful, modelesque woman in uniform. She kind of looked like Angie Ng.
Immediately, I realize he thinks I’m pointing at supermodel customs officer and calling her my wife. I imagine one of two possibilities: he’s either upset at me for trying to pull his leg or he’s jealous because he’s been eyeing supermodel customs officer for years now, constantly trying to figure out the best way to voice his feelings towards his secret crush, and I’ve just become to asshole who wants step right in his way. The Booth seems more and more a definite possibility.
My wife notices me empathically waving her over. “Yes, yes, that’s my wife coming over,” I say.
He turns, sees that I do in fact have a wife approaching, and says “I see” with a combination of ‘sigh of relief’ and ‘how silly of me’.
I explain to my wife what’s happening, the customs guy wants me to write my son’s name. She talks to him in Chinese, writes in the air with her finger the characters, and confirms everything to the customs guy. With a stamp of the passport, he sends us on our way, and we happily walked along, at long last heading home and without a visit to…. THE BOOTH.