In my years as an aspiring novelist, I have written several tales (most of them unfinished) in which a hapless protagonist would run into difficulties at the airport due to extraordinary circumstances, in which the laws of logic that tenuously hold our world together, as J. G. Ballard would surely have put it, suddenly ceased to apply. In one, the main character, on his first visit to the People’s Republic of China, was swallowed by a Kafkaesque security system and only set free (or sent packing, that is) after he agreed, following weeks of resistance, to tell the lie that the authorities wanted to hear.
Little did I expect, then, that I myself would become involved in such a fantasy when I returned to Taiwan from an overseas trip earlier this month. I write this from a dank hovel in one of the remoter corners of the city, hiding in the shadows for fear that the sunlight will again expose me as the fraud that I am not. As long as the Other is still out there, I cannot be myself. It’s simply too dangerous.
I got off the plane bleary eyed and my joints hurting after spending nearly 24 hours at various airports and crammed in economy class. Ours was the first landing of the day, and so I could expect a quick resolution of the necessary hurdles at the immigration desk. Upon reaching the dimly lit immigration area, I discovered that I was alone there. Only two kiosks were open, and I sauntered towards the one under “Resident Card Holders.”
It’s hard to explain, but in recent years I have come to enjoy the immigration process; it’s the lining up that annoys me. Where most passengers tighten up upon presenting their passport to the agent, I can say that I am genuinely relaxed and good humored. The predictability of routine events, I suppose, has something to do with it.
I crossed the red line and with a smile handed my passport and residency card. The agent, a woman, swiped my passport and hit a few keys on her keyboard. The usual. She asked me to look into the little orb-shaped camera on the desk, something that travelers are asked to do on occasion. Again, there was nothing unusual in this, so I complied. Sometimes they took your picture. Sometimes they didn’t. The standard random little things that airports did to people.
The first signal that something was wrong was when the woman’s brows knitted quizzically. She rose her head to stare at me, pulled up her reading glasses, and brought my passport, open to the picture page, to within a few inches of her face. She looked up at me again.
“Is this really you, Mr. C—?” she asked.
My only reaction was to laugh. “Yes,” I said. “I can assure you that this is me.”
The woman seemed unconvinced and again repeated the motions of staring into my passport and comparing the picture there with the man who was standing before her on the other side of the booth.
“I don’t think it is.”
“I’ve admittedly put on a few pounds,” I replied, still amused and convinced that the agent had decided to have a bit of fun. “And my beard is longer than it was three weeks ago. But that is definitely me. I am I.”
Motioning me to stay put, she took hold of a telephone and without dialing delivered a short barrage in Mandarin. A minute or so later, a male officer arrived and the pair exchanged a few words while the man stared intently at the computer screen. She handed him my passport, which he inspected before staring at me with narrowed eyes. By this point, I was no longer amused. I suddenly became keenly aware that I needed a shower.
“I’m sorry, but you are not him,” the man said, holding the open passport up so its inside faced in my direction. The picture of me stared defiantly back at me, and for a second it seemed like I was in fact starting at a stranger. “This is not Mr. C—.”
“Of course this is me,” I said, my voice rising. I turned around, fearing that a line of impatient travelers had by then formed behind me, but was shocked to see that I was still alone. “How can you say this is not me!”
The man emitted a laugh, but his eyes contained no humor.
“Because,” he said, his head shaking contemptuously, “the real Mr. C— entered Taiwan the day before yesterday using a legal passport.”
The room started to spin. Very slowly it spun, but enough to make me feel like I was about to throw up. It was one of those moments when the fabric of reality seemed to have unraveled, like the split second before a terrible car accident shatters the normalcy of routine life. In that brief but eternal instant, one finds himself seized by overwhelming doubt: Was I wrong all along?
No, surely it wasn’t so.
“What is this,” I asked, laughing. “Operation Shylock?”
“Now don’t be silly,” the female agent retorted, evidently not amused by my reference to American literature. “That was a work of fiction.”
With that, powerful hands grabbed me from behind and I was dragged away from the immigration area and deposited into a small detention room.
Hours went by, during which I was visited by a number of agents who asked me a series of questions about my true identity and the reasons why I was trying to enter the country illegally. Was I a terrorist? A secret agent? Did I traffic drugs? Firearms? Round and round it went, with no apparent issue. I didn’t know what to do. It was as if gravity had ceased to exist, and try as I might I could not bring back the Newtonian forces that would make everything normal again. Someone brought food, but I didn’t touch it.
I may or may not have dozed off for a while. When I came back to my senses, a new agent was standing above me. He was smiling broadly.
“Good news,” he said as he helped me get off the little couch I’d been slouching on. “They’ve cleared the whole thing up. An unfortunate mix-up, really. You are free to go, Mr. C—.”
My two pieces of luggage, which I had not been able to claim since my arrival, stood by the door. I seemed I was indeed a free man. I walked right by him without saying a word, grabbed my suitcases, and exited the room.
“Wait!” the man came running after me. “Your passport.” I took it sullenly and walked away. I dragged myself over to the taxi area, grabbed a cab, and gave the driver the address of my apartment in Taipei, where I lived alone. The world was normal again, everything was as it should be. The industries, houses and temples, all grayish blue against the verdant mountains in the early morning, zipped by outside the window, all in their proper place. Even my passport had been stamped.
The cab dropped me off just outside the four-story apartment complex I’d lived in for several years. I was home, finally, looking forward to the grounding that home provides us after extended travel overseas, not to mention the nightmare at the airport that I had just awakened from.
Grabbing one suitcase by the side handle, I unlocked the front door and began ascending the four flights of stairs (mine was one of those 1950s-era buildings that didn’t have elevators). I reached my floor, panting. I’d drop off the first suitcase in and go back downstairs to bring up the second after a bit of rest and a glass of water.
Then just as I was about to insert the key into the lock, I heard it, which sent cold chill down my spine. The unmistakable sound of the TV playing inside my apartment.