What is the purpose of your visit? The uniformed speaker must be kidding: it’s July and the car is packed to the gunnels. Parents and maps fill the front seat; four kids cram the back seat; a boxy tent-trailer brings up the rear. What does he think our purpose is?
Unperturbed, my father dispassionately describes our itinerary. Satisfied that we pose no danger to the United States, the border guard admits us. As we pull away, I pipe up, What if we had said that we were spies for the Canadian Government?
Parental patience had its limits, in the 1960s. I receive emphatic instruction in my father’s expectations of me at this and every border, today and always: Say nothing! pretty much captures it.
Some childhood training translates well into adult life: play nicely, share, clean up your room. Some does not: these days, I must say something at border crossings. Usually, this means trouble.
Let me be clear: I do not smuggle and I never, ever lie to border guards. Cursed by an almost complete inability to lie convincingly, I tell the truth as much for pragmatism as for principle. Even so, people often don’t believe me.
At the border, my credibility problem hits a positive feedback loop. Questioned by an impassive and armed official, I get nervous and over-communicate. I tell the truth, the whole truth, too much truth. Babbling is a sign of nerves, nerves a sign of guilt, and guilt a reason for suspicion. They suspect nameless (and non-existent) crimes; I get more nervous. Now they’re sure I’m hiding something.
This difficulty peaked in the 1990s. For several years I took the same vacation, spring and fall. Flying from Edmonton into Vancouver, I rented a car and made a break for the border. My goal: respite from crazy working hours. My destination: the Olympic Peninsula, a splendid miscellany of mountains, tide pools, and roadside cafes with pecan pancakes.
The typical scenario plays again in my mind’s eye. I pull up to the border, smile at the guard. No response. I stop smiling and start getting nervous. He asks the standard questions: Where were you born? Where are you going? How long are you staying? So far, so good. I know the answers; I’m doing fine.
So far, so good, but he goes further. What is the purpose of your visit?
As an adult, I know better than to joke about being a spy, even for Canada, so I tell the truth: I’m on vacation. At this point something starts to go south: just not me and my car.
What will you be doing? I’m not sure what he wants to hear—what do people usually do on vacation? I mention beachcombing, shopping and hanging out. The truth seems inadequate. Would it help to mention the pecan pancakes? Before I can decide, he asks again, Where are you going?
I am flummoxed, having already answered this question. I mumble something about touring the peninsula, but I’m uncomfortable because I think he doesn’t believe me. He doesn’t believe me because he can see I’m uncomfortable.
The interaction-turning-interrogation continues. Are you meeting someone?
He glances at the rental sticker on the windshield. Is this your car?
No, it’s a rental. What now?
Can you open the trunk? I can; I do. We stare silently at my luggage. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. I’m thinking that my two nylon duffle bags look worn, but harmless. Don’t they? Harmless enough, it seems. He is still vaguely suspicious but waves me on.
Over several trips the specifics vary but the tone is always the same. I come to dread this gauntlet and, in anticipating the worst, provoke it. Only the prize—easy access to temperate rainforest and undeveloped beaches—makes me brave it, again and again.
On my last trip I invite my 20-ish son to accompany me. With hair to mid-back, a full beard, and a wardrobe limited to black, he looks less than respectable. I’m his mother but I almost suspect him of something myself. Driving south, I am utterly convinced there will be trouble.
We pull up to the window. The guard ascertains that we are mother and son, vacationing together, and waves us through. I am both relieved and incensed. How has my son, looking as he does, made me more respectable?
Back home, new colleagues in security explain the ‘law of the exception’. Border guards see business people, couples, families, and groups of friends of all ages. At a land crossing, they do not see many middle-aged women travelling alone, even on business. Claiming to be on a solo vacation, I am an exception: suspicious by definition. My son and I, however, are a family: nothing suspicious about that.
Since then I’ve crossed into the United States many times. Like desensitization therapy for phobias, repeated exposure has modulated my response. Even so, my heart rate ramps up as I fumble with my passport and boarding pass at the airport, or creep forward in my car at land crossings. I still stumble in my answers, not because they are lies but because that’s who I am.
I wonder how border officials sort out the ‘false positives’—people like me who have done nothing, but who look guilty of something, from the ‘false negatives’—smugglers, terrorists even, who look innocent and who answer questions unflinchingly. Always a law enforcement problem, the stakes have risen in the last 10 years.
As a nervous-without-reason respondent, I don’t have to imagine my stress in this dance of questioner and questionee. I don’t want to imagine the stress the questioners experience every day, feeling responsible, at least in part, for their country’s security. I wouldn’t want their job, trying to discern the innocent reasons behind the visible nervousness, or the danger behind the placid exterior. For my part, I’m trying to help by learning how to tell the truth convincingly, getting as close as I can to saying nothing.