Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Weird Questions

A reader is surprised that a doctor would ask me, "Does your Mommy work for the university?" For some reason, I often get asked weird questions by strangers. Once, a customs officer grilled me for ten minutes about the income my father had declared for the previous year. Since I honestly had no idea, the conversation just went on and on.

"Are you trying to tell me that you don't know how much your father makes?" the customs officer asked sarcastically.

I tried explaining that I hadn't lived with my parents for over a decade, that I was completely independent financially, and that I'd been living in a different country for several years. Still, he insisted.

One thing that I still don't understand is why he never asked how much my mother was making. Why is it just the father's income that was of interest to him?

Yet another weird conversation with a different customs officer took place when I was crossing the Canada-US border to begin my job at Cornell.

"So it says here that they are going to pay you $50,000 per year," the officer said. "That can't be right."

"Why not?" I responded.

"Why would they want to pay you all that money?" he asked with derision.

I almost missed my flight that time trying to convince him that they were, indeed, going to pay me "all that money" to teach literature. The officer's main argument was that not even he got paid that much, so it was unfair that I would. Since he was armed, I didn't feel like responding to this line of reasoning with anything other than "I have no idea why this is."


Spanish prof said...

I know somebody who had a similar problem at the Canadian-American border. He was a grad student, so he had to show the I-20. There, it not only says your stipend but the tuition and fees the university is paying for you. He got a very hostile officer asking him what was he studying that was so important that he got paid more than he made (he didn't, but if you added tuition and fees, it was a larger sum). I've never had that type of problems coming back from Buenos Aires into the US (via Miami, Dallas or Atlanta), as a grad student. I wonder why.

Clarissa said...

There was this long-standing myth that the 9/11 bombers came into the US via Canada, so maybe that's the reason.

Spanish prof said...

Maybe, I don't know.

Rimi said...

Well, after I filled in forms 6 page forms that covered every possible instance of violence or US-hatred I could have been involved in ("have you or do you intend to carry out fatal attacks on US citizens?"), the consulate employee interviewing me for my visa asked me if I had family or cousins who were US citizens.
"No", I said.
"No one you could marry for citizenship?"
"I couldn't possibly say that", I said reasonably, since the country was full of people I could marry for citizenship.
"So you're not sure whether you wanted citizenship?", he asked.
"I'm sure I don't", I replied.

Instead of being relieved from his obvious concern, the man looked at me like I was insane.
"You don't want US citizenship?", he said in an incredulous tone. "Why not?"
"I'm told it's a terrible place to live in", I said crisply, because this was in fact what I had been told.
"America?" exclaimed the man, now shocked. "A terrible place? Are you sure that's what you heard?"

At which point I defaulted to my old school-yard practice of staring expressionlessly at his face. I was quite surprised when my visa was approved.

Natasha from Russia said...

And I feel confusion when to me ask questions which to me seem unethical. It seems to me a question on incomes, it as a question on lovers. I at all don't know how to answer, like and to offend the person it would not be desirable, and as it is polite to answer I know.

Clarissa said...

Rimi: I laughed so hard that I almost choked. :-)

I have also been asked if I've engaged in acts of prostitution or if I prostituted others.

Pen said...

Even if you did live with your parents, why would there be any reason for you to know your father's income? That question just seems wrong; I live with my parents, and I don't know how much either of them make.

Clarissa said...

I actually thought it was some kind of cultural difference, that maybe it was an accepted practice in American families.

Pen said...

I don't think so. Finances are a private matter. I don't even know what my best friend makes. So I find it strange that they ask those sorts of questions.

Anonymous said...

I'd be pissed as hell if complete strangers asked me that question. I would just tell them it is not their business.

Spanish prof said...

When they interview you for a visa for the US, they ask you about private finances because they are afraid you are going to get a tourist visa and then overstay and become an illegal immigrant. So they want to check that you have a life and resources at your home country, so it's more likely that you will return.

That was actually very common in Argentina: in the 90s, Argentinians didn't need a visa to get into the US as tourist. Because of the economic crisis, over 100,000 Argentinians ended up immigrating illegally to the US entering as tourist. So now you need a visa and they check your finances. What I've never heard of is of somebody being asked if they have a relative who is a US citizen and that you intended to marry for the citizenship. That is very curious.

Pen said...

But they didn't want Clarissa's finances. They wanted her father's finances, even after she explained that she had not lived with either of her parents for over a decade.

When I applied for a passport, the marriage question was also there. Apparently, the government will still grant you a passport if you aren't naturalized and have plans to marry, or if your long-term presence will be accounted for by the relative. If you're applying for a visa, which--correct me if I'm wrong--places a limit on the time you can be in a certain country (that was how it was explained to me--again, please correct me if I'm wrong), it might make sense that they might look for reasons why you might overstay the terms on the visa.

Spanish prof said...

As I read it, they were applying for a visa. Although a tourist visa is not the same as a student visa, everytime I had to renew my student visa I had to prove them somehow that I didn't intend to "stay" to live in the US

Clarissa said...

No, at that point I'd already had a visa from my university for years. It was a routine crossing of the border during holidays.