On the Singapore Airlines plane, everyone clapped as we made a perfect landing. Then we sat on the ground for about 10 minutes while we waited to be hooked up at an exit ramp. Even the delay signaled the fact that we had landed in one of the busiest places on earth. Big City busyness. Why do folks applaud every time we touch down at Kennedy? Maybe because they are just relieved that the long flight is over. But, really, do they applaud when they touch down in Tokyo? In Teheran? I think it has to do with the energy, excitement and anticipation of The City, The Big Apple, Fun City, Sin City, Crime City, We Can Kick Your City’s Ass City, New York City.
I rushed through Immigration, eagle passport and all, with the Black female INS officer saying she wished could have gone away instead of me. She wasn’t due for another vacation until next year. I told her I was glad to be back in the city that everyone loves to hate, including me. The luggage was already tumbling onto the carousel by the time I walked over to the sign that lighted up for SQ026. Having had my bags checked through Chennai and Singapore via Frankfurt, I expected a long wait. I hoped my mother’s aikoora meende achaar had not blown its lid and leaked onto my Tamil Nadu handicrafts.
Suddenly, Lily the beagle was standing next to me sniffing expectantly. On the other end of the leash was a thin young white woman with an FDA decal on her navy jacket. She appeared to be unable or unwilling to make eye contact which of course may be necessary for her to perform her job properly. It took me a minute to realize Lily the beagle meant business. “Are you carrying any fruit or meats in your luggage?” the FDA woman asked me. I confessed to having some tamarind, a mango and three plums left over from my sojourn in Singapore, but no, no meats, hoping that my meager fruit stash all secure in a Ziplock bag would escape scrutiny. There used to be a time when you could smile at the US Customs official at JFK and deny that you were carrying anything edible. Then you could always act charmingly surprised if they opened your luggage and found, say a tiny bag with 10 nherakkas in it. “Oh that” I would say “My mom gave it to me. Could I please keep it and eat it on the A train going home?” They probably would have said no. Generally they never found the stuff you had hidden. But now times have changed. Lily the beagle is on the job.
I regretfully surrendered my mango . I was told the tamarind was OK to take with me. All the better to make Baghara Baingan once I shook off my jetlag back in my apartment in Washington Heights. You win some, you lose some.
Being a sociology prof. (at a college in NYC) and therefore addicted to comparative analysis of culture and social structure, if only superficially as in this instance, I think I see in my airport saga some contrasting pointers for the Indian and the American way of doing things. My fragrant Neelam mango from Chennai was more likely than not riddled with mango weevils. I had eaten several of these mangoes in Chennai, after persuading the not- so- little critters to leave their juicy homes. The American core value of individualism is held in check by societal safeguards that limited my freedom to bring my mango across international borders. They didn’t cut off my hand, they didn’t even accuse me of lying on my US Customs declaration, they just took away my mango! On the other hand the Indian (specifically Hindu) core value of privatism — as distinguished from individualism– especially in religion but indeed in all societal endeavor ( “I’ll step past this leper in my way to the mandir”) made it possible for me to carry my mango in with little regard for the societal consequences. Also, I see a little of that ‘can do’ Yankee ingenuity on display with Lily the beagle in her starring rule. Finally, the immigrant yearning to hold on to little vestiges of ‘home’ was part of my little charade at US Customs.
How many of you have experienced versions and variations of the JFK Mango Blues?
July 10, 2000