I stopped by Canada for two days during my 3-week trip the US to visit my ex-colleagues. I can only conclude that Canadians are probably one of the nicest, most gracious people in the world.
It all started when I arrived at the passport control at Toronto International Airport. The lines were short and it was soon my turn.
The customs officer was a young lady in her twenties.
‘How long will you be here? Where are you going after this? How long more will you be in the US?’ she asked, in a factual, monotone sort of way.
I answered those questions without a problem.
‘Why are you visiting Canada?’
‘I’m visiting a friend.’ I said earnestly, in the friendliest manner I could muster. I’m by far a very innocent person, and I find that being friendly helps to project that innocence.
‘How do you know each other?’ she probed. At that moment, I felt that immigration officers could double up as novelists, if they were to document the stories of tens and thousands of lives which passed through the gates each day.
I gave her the full details.
‘Any gifts for your friend?’ she asked.
‘Oh yes, this.’ I said rather proudly, pointing to the bottle of duty-free Ardbeg single malt whiskey that I was planning to give to my ex-colleagues. I imagined them to be very pleased upon the receipt of this fine gift.
At this moment, her face changed. Her toneless, bureaucratic, this-is-just-a-job voice grew serious.
‘Under Canadian law, no citizens of Canadians or North America are allowed to receive duty-free gifts of alcohol and tobacco.’
Uh-oh… what have I done…
I was slightly appalled and recovered just in time to say, “Oh, I see.. In that case I’ll have that for myself then.’ I replied, in the most convincing tone I could muster.
‘Are you absolutely certain that this would not be used as a gift and would be consumed by yourself only?’ she said in a stern voice.
Now I’m not an expert at reading facial expressions, but I think I saw a knowing smile on her face. I could be wrong.
‘Yes, I’m absolutely sure. I’ll have the whole thing,’ I said with conviction, though the image of a small-sized Asian girl gulping down glass after glass of a rather peatish single malt whiskey did seem to be quite amusing, and I couldn’t help but break into a smile.
She let me pass without much ado, and I caught up with my travelling companion G.
Friend G was flabbergasted. ‘You told them you had alcohol as gifts?’
‘Yupp, honesty is the best policy. In all my travels in Asia, no one has ever asked me if I had gifts for friends.’ I explained.
‘Whether a bottle of alcohol should be a gift is a decision you should make after customs,’ he said. He shared the story of a friend who had a similar experience. But unlike me who was fortunate to deal with a magnanimous immigration official, his friend was subscribed to a lengthy bag-checking exercise, which took a really long time.
This incident resonated with me because it’s been a while since I’ve had to look into someone’s eyes and achieve a common understanding without words. I used to do that all the time in India and I’d never imagine having to do so in an English-speaking country like Canada.