In an earlier incarnation, more than a quarter of a century ago, I was contracted by the State Services Commission to media train public servants. With my Fair Go colleague Judith Fyfe – she of the huge, eccentric specs – we put people from pretty well every government department through crash courses on handling the press, radio and television. We enjoyed these sessions and so, mostly, did the participants. But, after a time, we began to notice that the personalities, and even the wardrobes of our students, very much reflected the departments they came from. So the Foreign Affairs people were witty, urbane and looked as though they’d just stepped out of a Moss Bros commercial. The Social Welfare people were rather worthy, appeared not to have had time to brush their hair, and their wardrobe must have come from their local op shop. We concluded that this might be deliberately intended to help them fit in with their clients. The Treasury people, who all had first class honours degrees from Oxbridge, were dressed like university dons and invariably began by making it absolutely clear that they had nothing to learn from anybody, least of all subhuman media whores like us. We enjoyed reducing them to gibbering wrecks during the interviews. The Police always insisted on wearing their uniforms and sat stiffly erect in the interviewee’s chair, responding to questions as though they were giving evidence in court. ‘I was proceeding in a Northerly direction on the day in question, when I observed two male persons behaving in a suspicious manner.’ This at a speed so slow that even a court stenographer would have had time to nip out and make a cup of tea.
But it was the people from Immigration who really got up our noses. A bigger collection of jumped up, tin-pot Hitlers it would be hard to imagine. ‘We’, they declared, ‘are the guardians of the frontier. Without our approval, no one may set foot in this green and pleasant land.’ I made up the green and pleasant land bit, but the rest is true. I’m reminded of those sessions every time Judy and I go overseas. And every time I go overseas, I find myself asking the same question: Why do immigration officers world-wide have to be such total arseholes? Our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia was no exception. The arrival area in Hanoi is a barely lit hanger devoid of any decoration or furniture other than two desks behind which sit two uniformed apparatchik. Before they have spoken a word you are left in no doubt at all that you are in a communist country. As it happens, they never do speak a word. Like most immigration officers worldwide, they summon or dismiss as though directing traffic – with robotic hand gestures: Come here! Stop! Wait! Step back! Behind the yellow line! Go! Next! They have all been to Grim Scary lessons and have had their smile muscles Botoxed. There is of course no greeting, no Hello, no Welcome to Vietnam, no expression of interest whatsoever. Even ‘So where do you come from, you filthy lackeys of the corrupt capitalist West?’ would have been nice. But nothing.
Well, nothing except “Passport!” One might have thought that one of the purposes of examining a passport was to confirm that the passport actually belonged to the person standing in front of you. But the apparatchik’s eyes never leave the table in front of him. You are not even worthy of his glance. Open, flick, stamp, close, push forward, wave away, summon next non-person. This is the first person you’ve met in the country you’re going to be living in for the next three weeks. These are your first impressions. My god, you’re going to be holidaying with the Viet Cong! It may take no more than five minutes when you leave the immigration hall to discover that you are in fact going to be holidaying with one of the most delightful, the most charming, the most beautiful people on earth. Immigration officers are rarely good ambassadors for their country. Our next country was Cambodia. Much the same story at Siem Reap airport as at Hanoi. But the immigration hall is much more attractive and the immigration officers considerably more colourful. About a dozen of them sit in line like judges behind a gently curving high desk. They are in full regalia – brass buttons, braid, epaulettes – a rather fine sight. But which one to go to? You are spoiled for choice. You head for Number 3, but are waved away. Other passengers are variously waved away from Numbers 2 through 10. We all line up behind Number 1. Number 1 neither speaks nor smiles. Nor does he return my passport, instead handing it to Number 2 who in turn hands it to Number 3, who in turn… Job creation scheme? Can there really be 10 separate processes involved in checking a passport? I’m finally waved to a chap at a separate desk just next to the exit. There is an eye on a stick attached to the desk.
‘You are from New Zealand.’
’I see you in New Zealand.’
‘You’ve seen me in New Zealand?’ (International fame at last!)
‘Yes, I see you in New Zealand.’
‘When I go to New Zealand one day. Ha Ha. But now I see you when you look in here. Ha Ha.’ (Pointing to the eye on a stick.) ‘Maybe I see you in New Zealand. If I win the lottery. Ha Ha’ We engage in a little more banter before he hands me my passport and wishes me a pleasant stay. A friendly, joking immigration officer. I’m gobsmacked. Can he be the exception that approves the rule that most immigration officers are total arseholes? I think he can. But I wait ages for Judy who has been given the third degree by some of his colleagues and is visibly upset. Leaving Siem Reap to return to Godzone was a re-run of Hanoi. As we always do in these circumstances, we thanked the non-speaking, non looking, non smiling officer profusely. ‘Lovely meeting you. Thank you. Thank you so very much. Goodbye.’ For the first and only time his eyes left the table. He looked taken aback. ‘Grunt’ There are degrees of arseholeness of course. The Americans are probably the most unpleasant, something to do with knowing that you live in the greatest county on earth and, fella, you better goddam well understand how privileged you are even to set foot on American soil. At the other end of the scale, you get a pretty friendly (and musical) welcome in Rarotonga.
And New Zealand? Well, maybe it’s just because we’re Kiwis returning home, but I suspect that, despite the jumped-up, tin-pot Hitlers of 25 years ago, our Immigration officers are nicer than most. It’s a lottery, mind you. We have our fair share of Hanoi style immigration apparatchiks as well. Lovely guy this time – where’ve you been, what was the weather like, pleased to be back? Welcome home. Nice. Immigration officers are your first and last point of contact with a country. They have a serious job to do as ‘guardians of the frontier’, but they should also realise that they’re ambassadors for their country so well. So yes, we’re glad to be back. Until we get to the final luggage security check which, this afternoon, is staffed entirely by women. Now this is a word that Judy hates but it is the mot juste in this case and I’m going to use it anyway. These women are bitches. Total bitches. Total lazy bitches. Total fat, lazy bitches. They stand there with their hands at their sides, issuing orders and watching elderly and sometimes frail passengers of both sexes heaving heavy suitcases onto the ramp without moving a finger to help. They’re a disgrace. country? Not in our experience. We’ve been all round the world. We’ve always liked the tangata whenua.