The experience that one has when encountering a faceless organ of the state really depends on the manner and tone of the actual human face you interact with. I return to the US about once or twice a year, and have had a wide range of experiences. Sometimes the border control agents are very friendly, chatting about their day, or mentioning their own Japanese experiences when I mention where I live. Other times they simply follow their script. Usually the script seems pretty boring, almost basic to the point of inanity.
When I flew back into the US this May, I had a rather odd interaction with the border control agent in Los Angeles. Here’s the content of our entire exchange. I’m confident that it is word for word, since I wrote it down immediately afterward:
Why were you in Japan?
I live there.
What do you do in Japan?
I teach English.
When is your birthday?
June 6th, 1984
Have you ever lived in New Haven, CT?
Welcome to America.
Have you ever lived in New Haven, Connecticut? My initial reaction was that the guy thought I looked familiar and wanted to make sure he knew me or not. But would he insert such a personal question into an official transaction of information? And if it was a legitimate question, what is the connection? I’m still amused by the seeming pointlessness of the exchange. I gave all of the right answers, but I have some new doubts about the relevance of the questions asked at our borders.