For my entire life, I’ve existed in spaces where Americans have been ridiculed constantly for being ignorant, aggressive gun toting simpletons. At the same time, whenever I’ve travelled to the U.S. I’ve found them to be primarily warm, friendly, good-hearted and well-intentioned people. Enough that my previous description defines the exception rather than the rule.
With my past few trips to the U.S. I’ve felt like most of my issues with America are systemic and the people inside those systems either don’t know any better or haven’t been given the capacity to learn differently. The messaging that’s being fed is so bombastic that it leaves little room for nuance. In short, these are mostly decent people within shitty systems.
I loathe what airport security has become. Leaving Austin yesterday I had to take off my shoes and put them in a bin with my windbreaker. In another bin I had to put my kindle, bluetooth keyboard, cellphone and headphones. In yet another I had to put a sandwich, a cookie and protein bar. My backpack went on the conveyor belt, then my carry on baggage. As an aside, it made me feel kind of ashamed to have so many material goods.
I was told to clear my pockets, so I asked what I should do with my passport, wallet and tissue. The guy told me I could just hold them in my hands. I approached the full body scanner, and the lady operating it told me I couldn’t have anything in my hands. I asked if that was true, because the guy told me to hold my passport, wallet and tissue in my hands rather than a bin and I thought it was sort of gross for me to be making any potential germs from my tissue into someone else’s problem. She thought for a second and acquiesced. I walked through the scanner with my arms held up then came out the other side. I was directed to stand on a mat with another chap, to spread my arms out so he could give a rigorous pat down to my stomach. I sighed and followed suit. He did his task and let me go.
I approached the conveyor belt and looked at my array of stuff. My carry on and snacks weren’t there. A guy looked over at my and told me to come over to him, there was something he needed to check out. I sighed again and asked if I could at least pack up my gear. He quirked his head, as if to say “why wouldn’t you be allowed to?”. I put on my shoes and windbreaker. I put most of my electronics back into my backpack and held onto the keyboard.
Look. I’m a white cis dude with a silly accent and generally pleasant demeanour. I felt frustrated, disheartened and a little dehumanised. I can only imagine how tense and emotionally charged these kind of situations must be for anybody outside of the extremely limited spectrum the system defines as “mainstream”. To feel so utterly powerless because I wanted to get on a plane from a holiday and go home? And for what? How many people do they really catch out with this kind of system? I’m absolutely sure that if anyone was planning on doing some serious criminal activity, they’d be smart enough to learn the system inside out to check for loopholes. I’m having a very hard time believing that the ends justify the means.
In any case, the guy with my carry on/lunch called me over, so I grabbed all my stuff and went to his area. He told me that by regulations, they have to scan basically anything that could imply organic material. He pointed to my Whole Foods bag and said “I scan a lot of Whole Foods stuff, but I’ve never gone in. What’s for lunch?” I told him I’d gotten a bison/arugula sandwich and was pretty excited for the Tollhouse cookie I’d gotten as a treat. “That sounds great man, I hope it’s as good as it sounds.”
I looked at my carry-on luggage. “Is it my Magic deck?” I asked. I brought a Magic the Gathering deck with me just in case I could find casual games while on the go. He nodded. “Yeah. These come up in the system as organic material for some reason and they’ve got an odd shape. We have to scan them.” He thought for a second and continued. “I used to work at a Tattoo shop and the guys there loved this game. I thought the art was cool, but I told ’em to stop it and play a real game. So we closed up shop that night. I bought a bunch of beers, grabbed some character sheets and played DnD. Had a hell of a time. Those were the days.” He finished up with the scanning, sent me on my way and told me to enjoy my lunch.
The whole experience had been one big emotional arc. None of these people were truly rude or unpleasant. They were all just doing their jobs. Over the holiday we talked in bars with locals a bunch. Even when we had fundamental ideological disagreements with them, it rarely seemed like they were truly mean-spirited or hateful. They’d just existed within a system that shaped them a certain way and as far as they knew, they were all killing it.
Seeing all of this made me thankful for my upbringing. For the cultures that raised me and guided me to question why, rather than pushing me in one direction. At the same time, I realised that there’s a certain amount of smugness in both New Zealand and Canadian culture that’s as uncharismatic as it is unearned. For any faults we’d assign to these myopic systems that run rampant within the US, goddamn if they’re not some of the friendliest people on the planet.