I once helped a friend commit identity fraud on a foreign government. Now, if you knew me at all you’d think I was lying about that. I’m a rule follower, a former lawyer for heaven’s sake. But somewhere in the depths of some small South East Asian country’s immigration files there is evidence that, when push came to shove, when I was tired and hot and grumpy I most definitely did not follow the rules.
Now, we didn’t mean to do it. My friend Bailey* is a lawyer and a rule follower too. But when we got off the plane and saw that we’d have to get our visas before we made our way to baggage claim we were stumped. I had an envelope full of passport photos in my carry-on, but her photos were in her checked luggage, out of reach and unavailable. We did the only thing we could think to do. In a country still bearing the scars of rule by a military junta, where, weeks later a taxi driver would ask us if we wanted to go to the genocide museum or the torture museum (answer: NEITHER thanks), I gave Bailey one of my photos and we got in line.
Now, Bailey and I really don’t look much alike. We’re fair-skinned and have grey-streaked brown hair but that’s where the resemblance ends. She’s got brown eyes, mine are blue. Our faces are entirely different shapes. And yet we stood in line and watched a row of five officials, one after the other, look at my visa application and pass it on, then look at hers, and pass it on. Applications with different names, different passports, but the same photo attached. We were standing right there. They looked at us, and looked at the photos, and looked at our passports, and just kept passing those applications down the line until they were back in our grubby, guilty hands. And then we collected our luggage and left the airport and vowed not to speak of it again until we’d left the country.
So, what lessons did I learn from this little experience? (1) When in doubt, carry on. (2) Cross-racial identifications really are as difficult and unreliable as researchers claim. (Shorter: we really all look the same to them. “We” and “them” being any different racial or ethnic groups.) (3) That just because something may have happened in real life doesn’t mean it would fly in fiction. I write romantic suspense and I could never expect to write a scene like this and get away with it. Nobody would believe that border officials would be that lax.
What about you, have you ever had an experience where you think: “God, I wish a character could get past this as easily as I just did” but know that no one would think it was realistic? Why does fiction have to be more believable than real life?
*Name changed to protect at least one of the guilty parties. Oh god. We are both so guilty. I still can’t believe we did this.