I’m in Vancouver on a business trip this week. I almost didn’t get to say that though, because my mother forgot to tell me that she and my dad are Nigerian immigrants.
I’m used to passing through customs. Although, I told my coworker while we were standing in the long winding line entering into British Colombia that it would be hard to not try and talk to the customs agents in Russian. The most foreign feeling in the world is being able to understand a customs agent. But apparently it doesn’t matter if you understand them or not. They are all the same.
I politely approached the counter and handed the young uniformed man my paperwork. He quietly looked it over and then looked me over, then wrote on my customs forms in red sharpie marker.
“Why are you visiting Canada?”
“I’m attending an Engineering Conference,” I answered.
“What kind of engineering?”
“Transportation and Roads,” I said, forcefully swallowing all snark and tones of humor from my voice. I know not to mess around in a customs line. Sometimes it is difficult for me though.
“How often do you visit your home in West Africa?”
“…” I had to really think to come up with a serious answer to this question. “I do not live in West Africa?”
The man looked me over with sad, serious eyes. “When did you change your middle name?”
I could see where this was going. “This has always been my middle name.”
He flipped my customs card over and started changing some of the squiggles and lines to different shapes. “Have you ever been to Nigerian and have you ever been exposed to the Ebola virus?”
I sighed. “No sir. Never. I just unfortunately am named James Smith and I live vicariously through the adventures of every other James Smith in the world.”
His tired eyes looked up from the paper, out of focus, staring right through my chest. “Give this to the officer after the baggage claim and he will direct you to the short line.” He said this to no one in particular.
I thanked him and moved on struggling to read the red hieroglyphics on my customs form and trying not to imagine what fate they had chosen for me.
The “Short Line” it turns out is where they send all of their misfits, criminals and all of my fellow Nigerian Ebola victims. I was directed down a dimly lit hallway into a long room. People were camped out on benches down the center. Several of them sleeping on suit cases. It was a homeless camp. Some of the people seemed to have been there most of their lives. It was coated in a deathly silence. A cold stillness. A soft nervous murmur coming from a discussion at the single open customs window. There was a strange music playing which turned out to be the sound of multiple people weeping in different corners of the room. Their sobs dancing together in the middle, echoing off the concrete walls. People hunched over in the corner crying and rocking back and forth.
I took my place in line behind a short Asian man that looked like he was maybe waiting to be shot. His chin hung low to his chest and he shook his head at the floor. A blonde woman on one of the benches pulled out her phone and started crying into it telling someone about how she had been there for five hours and had missed every flight out of the city that day. The rest of the sentence was just gurgling noises. Everyone politely ignored this and continued on with their lives in purgatory.
“This is good.” I thought to myself. “This is where I belong. Here among my fellow outcasts. Give me your poor your weak your downtrodden, because I am an American I assure you.”
A man that looked like he could possibly be Nigerian looked up at me from a seat nearby and coughed violently while making eye contact. We shared a polite smile and nod. At least now I might have Ebola. That’s a fun twist.
This time the uniformed officers had bullet proof vests with hand cuffs hanging off of them. So, the adventure could get ugly if they find out what James Carlos Smith has been up to, or James Thomas Smith who was doing God knows what in India. Perhaps a James Smith has joined ISIS recently. The odds were actually quite high. I started to sweat thinking about the thousands of other James William Smiths in the world. “Come on guys… don’t mess this up. We have to be a team here. No James Smith stands alone in this world. It’s one thing to ruin my credit score, but don’t get me arrested in Canada for being a terrorist.”
They tossed the short Asian man’s suit cases, explaining to him that he couldn’t bring several pounds of white bean curd into the country. He just nodded and wiped his wet brow, shaking noticeably.
“I bet that guy is also named James Smith.” I thought to myself. “They are going to think I have bean curd. Maybe that’s not even bean curd. Maybe it’s just small bags of pure Ebola…”
I finally was called to the counter and handed my papers to the man.
His crew cut swiveled back and forth from his computer then to me several times. He locked eyes with me sternly. This was a man that had dreamed bigger. I could tell. He wanted to be in action somewhere. Someone others thought of as a hero. Someone his children would some day brag about. Instead was stuck behind this counter all day interviewing scum like me. “Are you Nigerian?” he growled.
I tried hard not to roll my eyes and pointed at my US passport. “No, sir.”
He looked me over and squinted. As if it were hard for him to tell whether or not I was a Nigerian man. It was iffy. He had a hard job, I’m sure, having to tell the difference between all of these non Canadians that all looked the same to him.
“And your middle name is…?” he trailed off. Was this his plan? A trick question? Was he going to catch me not knowing what my current middle name is?
“William.” I said, pointing again to my passport. “I have never had a different middle name.”
This was the wrong thing to say. He put his papers down and turned toward me about to speak, probably to ask me why I would even mention that.
“The other officer asked.” I told him quickly motioning over my shoulder.
He turned back to his computer shaking his head.
“Have you ever been in contact with the Ebola virus?”
I suddenly remembered the guy coughing on me in line and hesitated. “… no. … Probably not.”
He glanced at me out the corner of his eye, still looking at the blinking red squares on his screen. I could see the screen. There were literally blinking red squares that appeared when he scanned my passport, like Canadian customs run their software on a Nintendo from the ’80s.
He took one more look over my passport, made a few new scribbles on the customs form and hammered a button on his keyboard angrily. The blinking box disappeared. Perhaps he has a quota of James Smiths to imprison or deny entry into Canada and was hoping I could help fill it. If only my parents had named me something more sensible, such as Tajudeen “The Nigerian Scourge” Smith.
He escorted me the length of the room and into a network of halls to an exit to the main terminal that looked to be rarely used. As I followed him I looked one last time at my comrades still living in this limbo world. My fellow misguided souls. Their hungry eyes jealously watching as I was lead to freedom, either through exit or through death. I frowned apologetically.
“What was that all about?” asked my work colleague who was camped out in the terminal waiting for me.
“That was just normal James Smith things.” I said casually and smiled. I wheeled my suitcase full of infested bean curd onto the train and we headed to our conference.