Once through Hong Kong immigration, Brig practically skipped to where Tommy was waiting for him.
“What was that all about?”
“Oh, my God! I thought I was going to shit my pants I was so nervous,” Brig stated as he bent over, grabbed his knees, and took in deep breaths.
“Try not to bring so much attention to yourself,” Tommy hissed, unwittingly breaking from his role of friendly host and moving off into the direction of China. Surprised by Tommy’s hostility, Brig straightened up and followed.
Catching up with Tommy, Brig apologized. “Hey Tommy, I’m sorry. I was just so nervous. It’s been a rough morning, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet.”
Tommy stopped and looked back at Brig who cut such a pathetic figure that it made him laugh out loud, breaking the tension.
“You are right, my friend. We both need to relax. You did great, and this is a good sign. If A-fai was dead, and the police knew about it, you would have been arrested.”
Tommy pointed out the window of the enclosed walkway they were using to cross into China. “See there?”
Brig looked out to see a mass of buildings and signs, outlined by the canal that separated Hong Kong from China. He relaxed a little, seeing that Tommy was back in good spirits.
“As soon as we get through immigration and into China, I’ll buy you breakfast and as much coffee as you can drink,” Tommy promised. He secretly rejoiced as Brig was now solely dependent on him for everything; food, money, drugs, even communication.
Brig was surprised to see several large white birds with stork-like legs moving methodically along the banks of the murky Ng Tung River that separated Hong Kong from China. Every few steps they would move their heads closer to the water, then quickly stab their beaks into the surface, fishing. Ducks floated along the slow-moving, almost stagnant water. Brig marveled that despite the river’s appearance and proximity to two major cities, it could somehow sustain life and attract nature. Of all the places these birds could fish and hang out, why would they choose here? Brig thought.
As they reached the Chinese side of the bridge, the pace of the crowd quickened. Tommy pulled Brig over to a table where several others were busy filling out personal information on the Arrival Card, a form required of all travelers seeking entry into China. Most of the information Brig needed was on his passport; name, birthdate, when his passport expired, Chinese Visa number. Tommy advised Brig to mark the “Conference/Business” box and said if he was asked, that he should tell his interviewer that he was in China to find suppliers for his gift store.
“My gift store?” Brig asked playfully, trying to keep Tommy in a good mood. “Why would I own something as lame as a gift store? Do I look like somebody who would own a gift store?”
“No. You look like a drug dealer that got the shit beat out of him. But if you tell them that, you might be spending the next few years in a Chinese prison.”
“O.K. But can I import something cooler, like lingerie?”
“Tell them whatever you want, just keep it simple and don’t try to impress them with your Chinese. They don’t care. Just speak English. Don’t call attention to yourself. There’s the foreigner line.” Tommy pointed to a short line where other Caucasians and a large group of Japanese tourists were queuing.
“Keep your passport and your arrival card together and in your hand so you don’t forget where you put it. I’ll meet you on the other side, just as we did before.” Tommy walked away towards the line for Hong Kong transfers.
Brig got in line behind the group of Japanese tourists. Their leader was a young, petite, Japanese woman holding up a red flag with the logo of a travel company on it. She and her elderly clientele all wore the same red baseball cap, with the same company logo emblazoned across the front. The woman’s voice was high pitched, but soft. Every so often she would bow. Brig gave her a score of seven and decided that he must be feeling better if he was able to think about women.
They can take my money, but they can’t take my libido, Brig joked to himself.
Though the foreigner line was shorter than the Chinese citizen lines, it was much slower. The immigration officers took extra time to evaluate a person’s passport, and Brig’s anxiety returned. He scanned the hall for Tommy for reassurance, but he was nowhere to be seen.
There were two immigration officers serving the one line for foreigners, a stern-looking man that reminded Brig of the Hong Kong customs officer he had just encountered and a young Chinese girl that seemed efficient, but not unfriendly, as she scanned the faces and paperwork of each visitor seeking entry into her country. She wore the standard issue black-rimmed glasses and appeared to have a slight skin condition. She wasn’t ugly, nor was she attractive. She was just one of the billions of average looking women that Brig didn’t bother scoring. However, at this moment, Brig prayed to a God he tried hard not to believe in that when it was his turn, the girl would be his.
The first Japanese tourist reached the front of the line and was escorted by their group’s leader to the interview window of the female immigration officer. Lucky bastard, Brig thought. He counted out the people ahead of him, trying to determine which officer he would be assigned. He pointed to each person ahead of him and mouthed the words, Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl, and so on, until he got to himself, Boy, confirming he would draw the male officer. “Damn it,” he said aloud, and re-counted. Again, he calculated he would draw the male officer. He considered letting the person in back of him move ahead, but remembered Tommy’s warning not to attract attention. Besides, the sequence could still change. He strategized that when it was his turn, and if he drew the man, he would act like he couldn’t find his passport and let the person in back of him go. Once the female officer finished with her immigrant, Brig would find his passport (which was safely tucked into his back pocket) and step forward to be interviewed by the young lady. Having formulated a plan, Brig relaxed.
With only two people ahead of him, it appeared as though he would draw the male officer. He touched his butt with the back of his hand to confirm that his passport was still there. In his mind, Brig went through his act. Right hand to right breast, then quickly to left breast. Left hand to left front pants pocket, right hand quickly down to right front pants pocket. Stay away from your butt pocket. Look worried. Then hold up your index finger as though you have an idea, then point to your backpack. Search the backpack until the girl’s window becomes available.
The final two Japanese tourists in front of him walked away simultaneously to the two officers, one to the left, and the other to the woman officer on Brig’s right. Brig looked down at the floor, avoiding eye contact. He heard the “thunk, thunk” of the immigration officer stamping someone’s passport to his left. Brig waited for the same sound to come from his right. He kept his eyes fixed to the floor. The person behind Brig was getting antsy and tried to get his attention, but Brig remained motionless. He heard the male officer yell out, forcing Brig to raise his head. The female officer was still chatting with her customer and the tour guide. Brig hadn’t factored in the tour guide. Brig looked back towards the male officer who signaled again for Brig to come forward.
Brig slapped his chest as if looking for his passport, and winced as he was reminded of the beating from the night before. Checking his front pockets, he did an admirable job of acting confused and lost. He held his hands up to the side of his head, palms open and up, as if to say, “What should I do?” Then he held his finger up as if an idea had struck him and unzipped the top of his backpack that rested on the floor. The man in-line behind Brig had had enough and bulldozed his way around Brig, knocking him off balance. Brig stepped to the side, pretending to look for his passport while at the same time keeping one eye on the progress (or lack of it) that was being made at the female officer’s window.
A few minutes passed and Brig again heard “Thunk, thunk” from his left, while the three women on his right, chatted, giggled, and nodded as if they were at a tea party. Brig looked back and signaled for the next person to go ahead. He painfully unshouldered the bigger pack from off of his back and pretended to search it. “Thunk, thunk,” came the sound from Brig’s right, and finally the last Japanese tourist passed through, leaving only the tour guide. As she handed her passport through the plexiglass, another male officer entered the booth and tapped the female officer on the shoulder. The female officer looked around, acknowledged the new officer’s presence, and continued to process the tour guide’s paperwork.
Brig’s head was down, but his eyes were up, looking to see which officer would finish first. Brig held his breath, as the officer on his left, the one he was trying to avoid, quizzed his interviewee. Finally, the sweet sound of completion, “Thunk, thunk” came from Brig’s right. He raised his head and watched as the Japanese tour guide bowed to the female officer and joined her customers who were waiting for her on the other side.
The female officer’s window was now open. Brig reached back, pulled out his passport, and yelled, “Found it!” intentionally loud enough so that both officers could hear. He laughed nervously and looked happily at the person behind him who seemed a little disappointed that Brig was jumping back in line and delaying his chance at immigration. “Found it,” Brig repeated and walked towards the female officer’s window.
He swaggered up to the window prepared to dazzle the young lady with his surprisingly good Cantonese, boyish charm, and stunning good looks. He smiled and sought eye contact but was disappointed to see her placing a sign in her window that read, “Please Wait.” She collected her things as if to leave, and Brig realized that she was going off-duty and was being replaced by this other officer. “No, no, no, please, just one more,” Brig implored. Both officers now held up their hands in a stopping gesture, and the female officer pointed to the sign.
“Ohhhhhhh. Come on!” Brig yelled. “Thunk, thunk” came the sound to Brig’s left, and he saw that the officer he had been trying to avoid was now staring at him and motioning for Brig to come forward. Brig looked over to the next person in line and suggested that he could go next.
“No,” the officer cried and pointed at Brig. “You. Come forward.”
The hair on the back of Brig’s neck went up, and he realized that he needed to proceed with caution. Brig smiled, walked over and the man his passport and arrival card with as much confidence as he could muster.
“Neih Hao,” Brig said in his best Mandarin. The officer was unimpressed and thumbed through Brig’s passport, stopping at Brig’s Chinese Visa. The officer looked from the Visa to the arrival card, making sure that the numbers matched and that the other information was in order. Satisfied, he thumbed back to Brig’s photo and held up the passport towards Brig’s face that peered back at him through the protective plexiglass window. The officer looked at the picture, then back to Brig. Photo. Brig. Photo. He stared awkwardly into Brig’s eyes for a full ten seconds. Sweat beaded on Brig’s upper lip.
“Why you come to China?” the officer asked.
“For business. Just like I checked on the form, sir.”
“A small import business…that I own…and run…in the U.S.A.”
“What you import?”
Brig stalled. He hadn’t expected to be interrogated and worried that every second he delayed an answer would cause suspicion. Lingerie suddenly sounded creepy.
“Condoms!” Brig blurted. That was stupid, he thought. “And other adult…things.” That was really stupid.
The officer stared at Brig. Brig wasn’t sure if the officer hadn’t heard, or had misunderstood what he had said. Brig looked at the ground like a guilty schoolboy. The officer finally moved and put Brig’s passport down on the table in front of him without having stamped it. He looked to his left, then to his right, as if looking for someone. When he didn’t see who, or what, he was looking for, the officer stood.
“My partner is waiting for me somewhere over there,” Brig said, pointing to an area where a few people had gathered and Tommy might have been. “So if you could just, you know…” Brig moved his fisted hand in an up and down motion as if stamping a passport. The officer ignored him and waved one of his colleagues over. The colleague approached looking suspiciously at Brig. They spoke in Mandarin, which was incomprehensible to Brig. The new officer nodded and moved aside as the older officer swung the podium gate open and stepped out. The younger officer stepped in to replace him.
“Come with me,” the man instructed.
“What? Why? What’s this about?”
“We want to ask you questions. This way.”
Panicking, Brig looked for Tommy but couldn’t pick him out amongst the mass of black-haired heads.
“No!” Brig cried out, “I mean, please no.”
“We just ask you a few questions. Come. Now,” he demanded. Brig considered running for it but knew he wouldn’t get far in this crowd. The officer saw Brig’s hesitation and signaled two other officers to join him, just in case Brig ran. The situation had escalated from annoying, skipped straight through troublesome, and into serious.