Be warned! As soon as you become any sort of “official”, something weird happens to your brain, forcing you to fire bizarre questions at innocent people. I’m constantly cursed by these, as are readers.
A businessman recently told local officials that he did not have a birth certificate. “No problem,” they replied. “Just bring in the midwife who delivered you.”
Not a joke! They demanded eyewitness proof from the woman who slipped him out of the womb 64 years ago. (Memo to new-born readers: Get the woman’s details now, before you forget.)
That happened in India, which seems to specialize in officials who make weird demands. A friend of a friend was accompanying a coffin through the airport in Delhi when an official asked what he was doing. “I am transporting the deceased body of an employee,” he explained. The official, after racking his brain for something to say, asked: “Did you kill him?” The passenger said he hadn’t, but I would have replied: “Yes, for asking supremely idiotic questions.”
But in my experience, the ultimate masters of nonsensical questions are US immigration officials. Typical conversation. Official: “You were born in Sri Lanka. How come you speak English?” Me: “Er, I learned it.” Official: “Why did you learn it?” Me: “Um, it’s useful.” Official: “Useful for what?”
The truth would be: “To communicate with oafs like you,” but I usually say something like this: “So I can fully appreciate masterpieces of Western culture such as recording artiste Mr Bieber’s exquisite rendition of Baby.” (This impresses them and gets them on my side.)
Officials once gave me a form which asked (I am not making this up): “Do you intend to commit terrorist acts while on US soil?” I wonder how many people answer “yes” to that question? Somebody must have for the question to remain on the visa form.
A US reader named Helen told me about municipal officials in her country writing a policy document defining same-sex couples. By definition, couples must have regular, active “conjugal” relations, they decided. Helen said: “Council members, many of whom had been married for many years, suddenly realized that they had disqualified themselves.”
That’s an impressive entry for a high score in the competitive weirdness index, but consider this entry from India. After two years in jail, a 27-year-old man launched an appeal on the basis that he had been behind bars when the crime had been committed. I can imagine the discussion. Court official: “Do you have a scrap of proof that you did not commit this crime?” Defendant: “I was in a maximum security jail on the other side of town.” Court official: “Other than that?”
Meanwhile in Europe, officials in Jersey demanded residents file Certificates of Existence. A man who turned up to provide bodily proof of his existence was told that that wasn’t good enough as he’d need paper proof and a witness.
Going back to US immigration officials, a frequent contributor called Otis wondered if they ask the same questions off duty? Spouse: “Good morning, dear. Would you like a cup of tea?” Official: “Why is it a good morning? Did you make the tea yourself? Could anyone have added anything to the tea without your knowledge?”
(Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send comments and questions via www.mrjam.org)