Some questions just shouldn’t be asked. And some people should be allowed to fly.
Flying from Bangkok to Saigon, I was filling in my landing card. When I got to the customs declaration page, I read a question which always kind of irked me. “Are you carrying more than 300 grams of gold?” Does this situation come up so often that they need to ask this question? Has anyone ever answered, yes?
When thoughts like this occur to me, I feel the need to tell someone instantly. I turned to the guy on my left and I said, “You know this question is nuts.”
“Tôi không có 300 gram vàng.” he replied.
So, I turned to the guy on the right. I saw he had an Australian passport, so I struck up a conversation with him the way I always do with Ausies.
“Excuse me, are you British?” I asked.
The reactions I get to this question range from forgiving, almost sympathetic, to being hit in the face with a full can of Fosters. This guy answered me a polite “No,” followed by some type of explanation about how, being American, I wouldn’t be able to tell the two accents apart, and my mistake was understandable.
I did want to point out that there was a picture of the Queen of England in his passport, which also could have been misleading. Or, I could have reminded him that the absolute high court of Australia is the High Court of England. Perhaps I had forgotten that, not only does Australia still have a Governor General appointed by the Crown, but, just a few years ago, the Governor-General sacked the Australian government.
So, it’s not really just the accent or the driving on the wrong side of the road that might cause an otherwise intelligent person to ask the honest question, “Is Australia part of Briton.” The answer, of course, is no, but since the Australian Navy is the Royal Navy and since the ships are all marked HMS or Her Majesty’s Ship, I think it is a fair mistake.
But of course, I didn’t mention any of these facts, because I am an idiot American who doesn’t know anything about Australia.
And playing that role, I could have asked him, “Is Australia part of Asia? Which continent is it on?”
In which case he would most likely have answered, “Australia is on the continent of Australia.” Which is, of course, a myth, as there is no continent called Australia. The continent, which includes both Australia and New Zealand and a number of autonomous and semi-autonomous islands, is actually called Oceana.
While a man with more knowledge of the world could have asked any of these questions, what I chose to ask was a question which I thought was priceless.
“I’m American.” I began, doing my best Donnie Brasco accent (one an Austrian pub owner in Taiwan will never be able to imitate). “And we don’t know about the metric system. On this form, it asks if I am carrying more than 300 grams of gold. Now, I have a pound and a half of gold ingots, pirate treasure, in my checked baggage. So, what I need to know is, is 300 grams more or less than a pound and a half?’
Let me pause here and say, I like Australia a lot. In fact, it is my second favorite country, after Canada, and it only slips into second place because of its distance from NewYork. Australia beats Canada for weather. So, if Australia was located closer to New York, say, in the Caribbean, I would rank Australia number one and Canada number two. That’s high praise coming from a New Yorker who has never been to my state capital because it is north of 115 th Street.
I wouldn’t ride the subway above 115th street, but I would like to go visit Australia.
Also, just for the record, I honestly had nothing against this guy, at this point. I was just joking. And I assumed the joke, which was obvious, was that no one has a pound and a half of pirate gold in their checked baggage. And I thought we might have a laugh about what a silly question this was, both mine, and the one on the customs form.
But, his reaction hit every pet peeve that I posses, which is many, and I suddenly wished I had ripped into him.
“A pound is about a quarter of a kilo isn’t it?” He asked.
“Actually, it’s 2.2 pounds to the kilo. But, it was just a joke. I don’t really have gold in my bag.” I explained.
Unperturbed, he continued with his calculations. “Well, if there are two pounds to a kilogram, and 1000 grams is a kilogram….”
“I was kidding.” I said, trying to stop this runaway train of mathematics.
“I believe a pound shouldn’t be more than 30 or so grams.” He was still calculating. I couldn’t stop him. Not only that, but none of the numbers that were dripping from his mouth made any sense. “The square root of seventy-five…2 pints to a quart, 3.7 Polish Zloty to the Georgian Lari….”
Suddenly I understood how Asians feel when they are dealing with irate Americans. When hideous American tourists in Pattaya rip into a Thai food vender because the Pad Thai is not kosher vegan, the American is angrily shouting at the top of his lungs and the polite Asian plasters a fake smile to his face, but the eyes betray his true feelings, a mix of confusion and fear.
And at that moment, that was exactly how I felt. Being on the receiving end of a Westerner’s rant, I made a solemn promise to never go off on any of my Asian friends again.
I put on my best Mickey Rourke, botched botox smile, and nodded politely, while Pickwick Gibson Hogan, as I decided to name him, finally reached a conclusion.
“Fourteen pounds to the Stone, a caddy is one metric pound, so half a kilo, which, from what you say, is slightly more than an American pound….the Lira could be either Turkish of Italian….”
I was searching through my pockets for something sharp to slit my wrists and take the pain away. But the post 9/11 security took removed even that option. After several minutes of sawing into a vein with my motorcycle key, I was just about admit that escape was beyond me, when Pickwick Gibson Hogan finally reached a conclusion.
“It seems like you have just slightly over the limit. So, just go ahead and say No. That’s what I always do.”
He always marks NO? Although it isn’t true? Did Pickwick Gibson Hogan know something I didn’t know? Had I just been had? Is Pickwick Gibson Hogan writing on a blog somewhere “I had the misfortune of sitting next to one of those dumb Americans who thinks he is clever, although he doesn’t have 300 grams of gold, as I do.”
Maybe on the way back to Thailand I will find something less volatile to talk about.
That customs form also asked questions about fruit. On the return flight, I think I’ll only chat with the people who don’t speak English. And probably, it’s better if I keep the conversation limited to fruit.
How could fruits cause an international incident? I mean, unless they tried to get maried.
Man, some guys give their country a bad name when they fly. Sorry Australia.
Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
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