Do I fit the profile of a "terrorist"? I certainly look foreign, speak more than one language and studied engineering. However, I was born in New York City; my parents are Taiwanese so I grew up conversing in English and Taiwanese at home, and then learned up to six languages. Furthermore, my civil engineering degree hails from Columbia University, whose engineering school is celebrating its 150th anniversary (or sesquicentennial, for Scrabble buffs like me) this year.
The New York Times reported Monday that "Taiwan authorities have repeatedly raised the issue of the rapid growth in the number of lost/stolen Taiwan passports," stated one WikiLeaks cable in 2006. American diplomats abroad warned that those passports "are becoming the travel document of choice among globe-trotting criminals."
My trek to Taiwan happens about every six years to visit family. As an American, I take for granted that I can bop over to Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, China or South Korea with ease perhaps because I appear Asian. Most world travelers know how difficult the jet lag is between the Orient and the U.S. The flight time from Hong Kong to Los Angeles is 13 hours and 20 minutes. The flight is usually filled with Asians, and I end up helping my neighboring retired couple order food or translate "no meat" for the vegetarian Taiwanese grandmother. Yes, I have flown Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines -- both international competitors of the Kuala Lumpur-based carrier Malaysia Airlines. The missing flight MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Saturday brought back vivid memories of my experience aboard a flight with two passengers donning fake passports.
About 20 years ago, I traveled by myself on Northwest Airlines, departing Taipei and arriving at LAX with a stopover in Tokyo. On a packed flight, I sat in economy class -- fairly in the back of the plane. In the past decade, I fly overseas maybe once every year or two, so I find it odd that my visual memory can still recall the chaos at that Narita Airport gate. Something was abnormal, but I could not pinpoint it...
Why was my flight back to the U.S. so memorable? When the pilot announces -- after seven hours of smooth sailing -- that six hours remain in the flight, we 200-plus passengers are either asleep or practically high-fiving each other because we're halfway there! After 12 hours of flying over the ocean, most passengers are exhausted from sitting too long, watching movies on and off after napping in the upright position... and then the intercom came on. We were all asked to get out our passports and be prepared to show our identity immediately exiting the plane. That's strange -- customs is usually a good 20-minute walk away from the gate. We lethargic, obedient Asian passengers did what they asked us and waddled single file down the aisle like penguins with no "happy feet."
A makeshift security checkpoint was setup right after the plank outside of the plane's opened door. I will never forget my slow-motion departure which suddenly became hurried and frantic, only a few steps out of the jet. My tired eyes noticed one young punk was handcuffed to a chair, then this large muscular Caucasian officer from LAX sarcastically grunts, "Yeah, right!" He grabbed this skinny Asian guy -- about five bodies away from me -- and threw down the fake passport while slamming him down and handcuffing him to the next vacant chair. I witnessed two approximately 19-year-olds get arrested right outside the plane! I couldn't help notice the fake passport strewn on the carpet by the fugitives' feet. Crumpled up fake customs forms had unraveled too -- more like folded green construction paper than any formal document, not even close to origami paper. The passport was so fake, even my naked eye could detect it was not real.
While most of us weary travelers were toting bags, gifts, books, jackets or even kids, the two stowaways had no carry-ons. The two Asian beatniks were carrying absolutely nothing, except for their fake passports. I always wondered if one of those guys had taken my USA passport, would he have had the proper tools on board to replace my headshot with his photo? We were both Asian, about the same age and Chinese names can be flip-flopped without distinguishing first name and surname or figuring out if my female name sounds more like a man's name. Both fugitives, skinny and looking 19, were casually dressed with hoodies on and wearing sunglasses! Why would you be sporting shades when we've been flying without sunlight for hours? The luminosity of the hallway is never blinding!
Upon viewing the news about the recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 with two passengers traveling with stolen passports, I am reminded about my experience flying back from Asia. Since that day, my intuition claims that the young female gate attendants (at that particular Narita Airport) during my stopover in Tokyo helped those two stowaways get on my flight.
Apparently, 600,000 lost or stolen passports prevail. So never leave your passport unattended, even on a plane.