I apologize, faithful readers, for what I’m sure is the distress I have caused for not keeping up regular posts in the last couple of months. After returning to the Western hemisphere to visit family and friends for five weeks, I have just returned to Beijing. Next week I am leaving again to start a three-month internship with the microfinance firm Wokai at their field partner office in rural Sichuan. I hope to continue to update this with stories from rural China in the coming months–but until then, I have just an amusing case of reverse culture-shock to report.
A return trip from a family vacation a couple of weeks ago brought me to the Atlanta airport, where I came face-to-face with the newest and statest-of-the-art tool in the Homeland Security Administration’s arsenal. As we came to security we found ourselves in line for a massive glass chamber, at least four times as large as the simple metal detector it had replaced. The structure, a sign informed us, was a “millimeter wave scanner,” and uses high frequency radio waves to scan for weapons, liquids and other items on the bodies of passengers “without the need for a physical pat-down.” The same sign demonstrated how it could scan underneath the clothing of the extremely fit man and woman in the sample image, while tastefully stopping the scan from penetrating underwear. Transportation Security Administration started testing these machines, at $100,000 a pop, at a number of airports across the US a couple of years ago. In theory, the device should both increase the speed of airport security scans and protect the privacy and personal space of travelers.
When my turn in the machine approached I was instructed to stand in the exact center of the glass chamber, with my feet positioned just-so and my arms at the correct angle above my head. It took only a few seconds for the machine to emit a low whine and then permit me to exit on the other side. Once exiting, though, a security guard blocked my path from getting my luggage. From research I did later, I learned that at this stage the image scanned by the machine was being transmitted to another room away from security for processing, again to protect my privacy and prevent other onlooking travelers from a look at my mostly-naked body. A third party out of sight would have to examine and approve me visually before I was allowed to proceed.
Apparently, though, this mysterious figure did not like what he saw, and I was told to enter the machine a second time. Again I was instructed to stand in the center and assume the correct pose. Again, the machine technician met me with a distressed look on the other side. After two failed passages through the machine, it seems, they resort to more desperate measures. I was shuffled to the side of the security area where I met a large security guard, who gave me a deadly serious look as he explained the next course of action. As anti-pat-down technology had failed, he explained that he was going to give me a pat-down after all with the backs of his hands. With the solemnity of a doctor recounting the steps of an upcoming chemo treatment, he explained that the pat-down would have to approach the crotch region, and that if I was uncomfortable I could “request a private screening” beyond the prying eyes of other passengers. Eager at this point to get it over with I told him to go ahead, following which he quickly, and almost squeamishly, brushed the front of my pants with the backs of his gloved hands and sent me on my way. I went to collect my luggage, still baffled as to how I had become a potential security threat. The best reason I can come up with is that while the male model in the sample image underwent screening while wearing boxer-briefs, I may have thrown off the machine by my choice of boxer shorts.
As this process wound to a close I found it harder and harder to keep a straight face, so amusing were the lengths to which TSA would go to preserve my dignity and sense of personal space. As I was shuffled through the microwave scanning machine a second time I could not help but think of my experiences at Chinese airport security, which almost always followed the x-ray machine with a brusque pat-down from a Chinese security guard. The short, butch ladies that they tended to choose for these jobs were swift and business-like in their work; they were not always entirely gentle but they always got the job done in a few uncomfortable seconds. The millimeter wave scanner had taken much more than these few seconds, while also costing the American taxpayer at least a hundred thousand dollars. I wondered idly if this considerable savings of time and money wasn’t worth a few seconds of breached privacy. I wondered then, not without some dismay, as to whether or not this thought didn’t represent solid evidence that my own conception of privacy and personal space hadn’t already been influenced considerably by a year in China. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it doesn’t take long here to realize that the value placed on personal space and privacy is considerably different here. At least some of this is the result, I think, of the necessity of living in a city as crowded as Beijing–one cannot ride the subway at rush hour without being willing to feel a little bit personally violated. Having gotten used to this, it was clear to me by the time I got back to the US that my tolerance for violation of personal space had been significantly heightened. A few weeks ago I slid into between two people in a crowded elevator only to receive appalled looks from the other occupants wondering why I hadn’t just waited for the next elevator and saved them the extra breathing room (in the competitive world of the Beijing subway, waiting for the next car is tantamount to an admission of defeat).
By the same token, I wondered if I had not, after a year in Beijing, become more willing to accept small personal violations (like a pat-down) at the hands of the government in exchange for other tangible goods (saved time, saved taxpayer dollars) than the average American was. Or, perhaps, as I felt while microwaves scanned by body for the second time, this was one area where the American obsession with personal space had overruled the more obvious and logical decision to a problem.