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Wise Guys

You can learn a lot of customs in the customs line

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
Rita Mae Brown

In a serpentine customs line at Atlanta-Hartsfield International airport, I overheard a conversation between three immigrants speaking Arabic and colloquial English. One would speak and two others would break out into peals of laughter. They took turns. I had just stepped off a very tiresome flight. Decaffeinated and stiff, I wanted to breeze through and get horizontal. This time, however, I could not help myself from leaning in to hear what these guys found so humorous. I cleared my throat and asked them: “Where did you learn your English?”

Each exchanged a glance: “Where…or how?” Before I had a chance to clarify the question, one chose to answer the how question: “From TV, silly!”

I thought to myself, did this guy really say, “silly?” What was so silly about my question? I pressed on, no longer sensitive to what might be an intrusion into their privacy. “What country?”

“Iraq!” I wondered why they punctuated every statement with an exclamation mark.

The customs line inched forward. Fatigued passengers toed their carry-ons a few feet, yawned, shushed their fidgety kids. I ventured a bit more: “Was it through the America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, AMIDEAST? BBC?” For some reason (I could not fathom myself), I asked myself why I had a need to impress them. They seemed a bit baffled. I started to worry. They’re probably going to get interrogated at the customs kiosk; why this, and why now?

I really should have just left them alone. The three men turned to each other and spoke Arabic in hushed tones. Addle-brained or incapable of reading any social clues, I must have been the awkward one, trying to be noticed by the group of cool kids. Ignoring me, they started in again, alternating with practice lines in English, laughter, then more English.

The line made one of many turns to come, and now we were facing the group behind us. I usually scan those faces to see if they are as exhausted as I am. This time, I wasn’t interested. “I was just wondering,” I said again, “about how people learn English. I was an English teacher once. Which tv show?”

The largest of the three stepped forward, and enunciated each word clearly: “The Brady Bunch!” Relieved they didn’t end that statement with “silly!” I asked took it a step further: “Do you remember any lines from the show?” They suddenly brightened up. “Yes, we know many! Many lines!”

Each man formed an arc in front of me, placed their hands on each other’s shoulders as if they were to dance a Greek Hasapiko. They counted to three, and proudly declared: “Martians, Martians, Martians!”

I didn’t know what to do. I nodded with exaggerated politeness, I was losing it. The signs were all there: pursed lips, red face from holding my breath, eyes wide, the averted gaze, a distinct “Y” shaped vein bulging from my forehead. I summoned all manner of self-control to keep myself from exploding into laughter. I am a terrible person, I said to myself. “Oh, I see.”

I looked puzzled. They looked at me. Shall I correct them? I couldn’t help myself. Affectionately, positively, I said: “Well, it sounds similar, but in the show, they said: ‘Marsha, Marsha, Marsha,’ not ‘Martians.’” They couldn’t care less and interrupted me with: “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha. OK, good,” said one. Another chimed in: “We’ve got more!”

“Try me,” I said.

“I’m not a Snickers. I just tell the truth!” I suppressed another laugh. “You mean a snitcher? I’m not a snitcher. I just tell the truth?” They looked insistent. “Snicker!” they said, in unison. I calmly responded with “Snitcher.” I remembered the Chinese student who was convinced that the word, clothes, was pronounced with two syllables: clo-thes.

Was it the jet-lag talking that compelled me to be the self-appointed grammarian and voice coach? Besides, this was a complicated case. It not as simple as explaining the distinctions in sound, leading to different definitions — one a candy bar and the other a tattletale. A snitcher could also be telling the truth. Or do snitchers lie about having told the truth? After considering all this, I saw that my face registered confusion which, in turn, confused them. I took a safe route: “Tell me another one.”

“Pork chops and apple sauce.”

I took the non-instructive approach, choosing not to put myself in a position of defining words, like pork, for my new Muslim line-mates. “Great!” I said, like a first-year teacher who rushes to praise, even if a student says something outlandish. “Tell me one more!” We had made a couple of more turns, and the customs kiosk was looming ahead. This was permission for their grand finale. It came in the form of a poem from Peter Brady.

This time, they nudged the youngest one forward, who stroked his beard nervously, then puffed up his chest and swayed from side to side metronomically to the beat: “I am a little Sunflower / Sunny, brave and true / From tiny bud to blossom / I do good deeds for YOU!”

At this point, we were instant friends — the English teacher and his eager trio of students at the customs line using The Brady Bunch as an English-language textbook committed to memory. Who said rote learning is bad?

All three formed an arc around me and bleated, “Sing the song!” I demurred. “Sing it!” said another, sounding a bit like a mix of command and teenage whine. A third handed me his phone so that I could read the lyrics from his karaoke app. I looked around at the other travelers. None seemed interested, certainly not enough to intervene. And so I began, softly.

Here’s the story of a lovely lady,
who was bringing up three very lovely girls.
All of them had hair of gold, like their mother,
the youngest one in curls.

Here’s the story of a man named Brady
Who was busy with three boys of his own.
They were four men living all together,
yet they were all alone

Till the one day when the lady met this fellow.
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch,
That this group must somehow form a family,
That’s the way we all became the Brady bunch.

The Brady bunch, the Brady bunch.
That’s the way we became the Brady bunch

I am certain that the USC Film School has run seminars on the premise and deep meaning of The Brady Bunch. Having both lost their spouses, a man and woman have shacked up to blend their families. Then again, this could be a groundbreaking resistance to a restrictive taboo, a coincidence of fate, or an economic necessity. For me, however, the price of engagement was embarrassment.

With a profound sense of relief, I noticed that an agent motioned the first of the three men forward. He strode up to the window, slipping his passport and itinerary into the spoon-shaped opening. Displaying the appropriate deference to the authority in the glass booth, he answered each question dutifully. While the officer was entering his passport numbers and scribbling on the visa, my new friend glanced back, smiling, returning deftly to the somber expression and decorum required by the gatekeeper to America.

Stamp. Next! The second one came forward and passed inspection. Just before the last of the three men approached the customs agent, he turned to me and declared, “You are a wise guy!”

“Wait, wait,” I was about to utter, “Am I a wise guy (emphasizing the first word, implying a somewhat derogatory sense of jocular arrogance) or a wise guy?” (emphasizing the second word, implying an affectionate respect for an elder with good advice). A nuance of this kind is not easily, nor quickly, communicated. While I rolled this over in my mind, an exhausted passenger reached over and tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to a stern, well-shaven, officer gesturing traffic-cop style for me to approach a different kiosk.

While my passport was being processed, the last of my customs line companions had received his stamp, grabbed his carry-on, and scurried ahead to meet his friends. Reunited, the were waving to me, saying: “Wise guy! Wise guy!”

I mouthed back: “Martians, Martians, Martians!” Suddenly aware that this word had its own set of connotations in context — aliens, illegal aliens — I realized my mistake.

The officer stamped my passport. Now he had a puzzled look. I smiled. I got my stamp. I scanned the area beyond the customs kiosk for my new friends, but by then, they were long gone.