What Do You Mean by That?

Razor sharp after a midnight departure from Vancouver and 15 hours in the air, I squint again at Question 9. The series of 11 questions had started with a seemingly innocuous lead-in: “Are you bringing into Australia . . . .” Now what’s in that dot-dot-dot is giving me fits on this day/night in early November, 2014.

And it had all started so well . . .

With a winning smile, the flight attendant hands me the Incoming Passenger Card issued by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Little knowing what is to come, I take it with an answering smile.  

I handle Question 1 confidently, calmly denying that I’m bringing into Australia any goods either prohibited or subject to restrictions: medicines, steroids, firearms, illegal pornography, weapons, illicit drugs.

I waste no time on Question 2. Since I’m not carrying any liquor or tobacco products, all it warrants is a glance. In golf parlance, it’s a gimme. But pride goeth before a fall, and Question 3 brings me up short.

Are you bringing into Australia . . .
3. Goods obtained overseas or purchased duty and/or tax-fee in Australia with a combined total price of more than AUD$900, including gifts?

Umm, I might be. After all, the goods I’m carrying for a month of travel were all obtained overseas from the Australian perspective—suitcase, camera, binoculars, smartphone, clothes—and they might well exceed AUD$900. After some reflection, I decide that I might be overthinking this form.  I tick “no,” but now I’m a bit uneasy.

However, I pick up my pace again with Question 4, quickly disclaiming the carrying of goods/samples for business/commercial use.

I buzz through Question 5, stopping only to think that I’d be glad to have $10,000 in anyone’s currency to travel with.

I pause briefly on Question 6, but decide that the chocolate bar in my purse doesn’t count as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, fruit, or vegetables.

So far, I’ve been helped in my analysis by the target being so clear: In every case the right answer is obviously “no.” No, no weapons. No, no liquor. No, no books to sell. No, no, no. But my slight puzzlement over Question 3 and my hesitation on Question 6 are a sign of trouble to come, just when I’m getting to the hard questions.

With their long lists, Questions 7 and 8 slow me down. I mentally scan my luggage for the forbidden grains, seeds, bulbs, nuts, plants, parts of plants, traditional medicines or herbs, wooden articles, animals, parts of animals, animal products including equipment, pet food, eggs, biologicals, specimens, birds, fish, insects, shells and bee products that these two questions want to know about. I have no idea what “animal products including equipment” might be, but am pretty sure I didn’t pack any. But with so many things on the forbidden list, I feel that I’m probably bringing in contraband all unawares. Was there quinoa in the granola bar tucked into a pocket at the last minute? Are there still toothpicks in cellophane sheaths lurking in the bottom of my purse?

Taking a deep breath, I squelch my irrational guilt, go back to the form, and hit a hard stop.

Are you bringing into Australia . . .
9. Soil, items with soil attached or used in freshwater areas (e.g. sports/recreational equipment, shoes).

Shoes with soil attached? Huh? On the face of it, this question is asking if I am bringing outdoor shoes into the country. And that’s clearly a “yes.”

I stare at the form as if at a snake—Is it a trick question?—and look around the airplane’s cabin at my fellow passengers. No one else is looking around for guidance, empathy, or a snake stick. Quite a few people appear to have already completed their forms. Bastards.

I glance ahead at Questions 10 and 11. Hurray! Two quick ones: Having neither been on a farm in the last 30 days, nor in Africa, South/Central America, or the Caribbean in the last 6 days, I’m good.

Well, almost good. I still have to decide how to answer Question #9. I read it again, but I’m still baffled, and squinting doesn’t help. I mean, what can I say, if challenged about my footwear? “No sir, I’m wearing house slippers that have never touched the ground?” I don’t think so.

I sit there, irresolute, wondering whether to throw myself and my incomplete form on the mercy of the border official. After all, I intend neither to immigrate to Australia nor to apply for citizenship: I just want to be let in for a few weeks. Surely under those circumstances a 90.9%-complete form should suffice.

As I sit there, stumped, it occurs to me that if ever there was a question designed to make liars out of an entire planeload of people, this is it. With that realization, I tick the “no” box, and just like that, I’m done. Hah! How hard was that?

Tucking the form into my purse with the toothpicks, I reflect that this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed that my day job has rendered me unsuitable for everyday tasks. After 25 years of looking at all the possible interpretations for a seemingly innocuous question–an activity not only helpful, but downright necessary in that job–I am less and less able to see the straightforward intent underlying badly phrased questions.

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12 Comments

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12 Responses to What Do You Mean by That?

  1. Alison Uhrbach

    It falls to me to complete the Customs forms when we travel. They seem to make Corvin VERY nervous, which is never a good state to be in as you approach a Customs agent. I agree with you that the questions are poorly phrased! However, I’ve decided to go the complete honesty route, and so far, it seems to work. I declare every granola bar, wooden knitting needles, postcard etc. It seems to always please Customs when I declare the dates I buy in Palm Springs – apparently, they like that I realize they are “fruit” ? who knows, but several agents have actually complimented me on my proper filling out of the form. I feel flattered.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Alison – Maybe you could hire yourself out as a travelling companion and negotiator of borders. I, too, go with complete honesty. On our return from New Zealand to Australia, I remembered the question about “shells,” and was concerned about bits I had picked up on the beach. I marked the form with a “yes” for that question, and pulled them out of my pocket to show the guy. “All like that?” he asked. “Yup,” says me. “No problem.” So I expect they’re discouraging the international trade in exotic shells and shells of endangered sea creatures. I just sorta wish they’d say that . . .

  2. But then, the form may have been designed to trick you. Or to force you to hire an attorney or an accountant or some other highly paid individual, as one accountant who was the designer of the Ontario Business Income Tax return cheerfully informed me. I could not read the darn thing for sense or cents and I have the equivalent of two degrees in English language and literature plus dozens of years’ experience as an editor. As for border crossings, it may be helpful to carry and offer up for confiscation some small trifle just to appease the gods and to deflect them from the shoes, as did a friend who had to part with a shiny apple (from her aunt’s English garden), which the immigration guard happily consumed before her very eyes.

    • “…which the immigration guard happily consumed before her very eyes.”

      Harsh.
      I was told by somebody that when you go into the States, by car, to take a bunch of apples, or was it oranges, in plain view. The customs chaps
      greedily confiscate those and forget to search or ask questions about anything else…

      • Isabel Gibson

        Barbara – I have, maybe once or twice but that’s all I swear, used similar diversion tactics on a document reviewer who had to find something to fix. There wasn’t much point in trying to make it letter perfect – if I did, they’d start questioning the entire communication rationale, driving a complete rewrite. Better to have them point out a copy editing error or two and retire from the field of combat, them happy and me relatively unbloodied.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Laurna – Yes, it does bear some of the hallmarks of the tricky true/false and multiple-guess tests we took in school. It might be stronger for that purpose if the right answer weren’t always “no,” but that would be harder to write. As for the tax forms, we’ve started using software – all we do is enter the information on all our forms, and the program automagically does the rest. Hurray!

  3. Haha! A classic dilemma – as a survey designer as well I can’t help but overthink these customs forms to death as well – do these chocolate bars with tree nuts count? what about this cotton t-shirt I’m wearing?…it is a ‘plant product’…

  4. John Whitman

    Hi Isabel:

    It seems we all have stories to tell about crossing international borders.

    Botany Bay notwithstanding, there are still some similarities between the Aussies and the Brits. I too was faced with the same quandary about how to respond with respect to soil on shoes as I filled out the immigration form for Great Britain prior to landing at Heathrow on a business trip. That was several decades ago now, and I wonder if the Brits are still just as picky, now that all kinds of things can access “this sceptered isle” via the chunnel.

    I’ve never had an immigration agent eat an apple in front of me, but I have a similar story involving a can of you ‘all beer. Travelling from Ottawa to NS through Maine I stayed the night at Farmington, Maine. I had one can of US beer left from the 4 that I bought to go with the pizza I had for supper in my room and decided to take it with me, thinking that no border agent would care about one can of US beer. I adopted the honesty is the best policy and declared it and was immediately told that I had to pay duty on it because I hadn’t been out of Canada long enough to claim duty free status. The duty was almost as much as the cost of the beer in the first place so I declined – plus it was after all, US beer.

    Then to my surprise, I was requested to park my vehicle and accompany the agent so I could witness him pouring the beer down a sink. And you thought I was anal!

    John W

    • Isabel Gibson

      John – I suspect that border pickiness (like other varieties) varies over time, and maybe not always in response to objective reality! I don’t remember any particular surprises when landing at Heathrow a few years ago, but I was so dopey from lack of sleep that I might have missed it. As for your American beer, I think you hit a super picky and careful guy. But honest . . .