The Square Root of 98

By JoAnne Hewett | September 20, 2006 11:26 pm

I bet you all are not aware, but there is a new test of nationality being performed when one enters the US. I arrived in the San Francisco airport on Monday night, passed passport control, picked up my luggage, and went to hand in my customs form, which is the last step in the arrivals process. The customs agent stopped me dead in my tracks. He first asked, “Are you an American.” Obviously I answered “yes” straight-away. Then he asked, “OK, then, what is the square root of 98?”

Now, this is a question that me of all people (given what I do for a living) can answer, instantaneously. But, at the time all I could do was turn towards the guy and utter “HUH?” There were three things on my mind:

  • I had already passed passport control. This guy was a CUSTOMS agent. Why was he checking my nationality?
  • I had been traveling for 23 hours. I left my hotel room in Venice at 5:10 AM, took a boat to the train station, took a train to the mainland, took a train back to Trieste (I won’t mention the trauma associated with catching that train or knowing that it was the correct train…), took a bus from the train station to the airport in Trieste (I won’t mention the trauma wondering if the bus was going to make it on time to the airport so I could catch my flight), took a flight to Munich, sat in the Munich airport for 4 hours, then finally took the 11 hour flight back home to California….I understandably was a bit dazed after all that!
  • I was smuggling suspicious cheese in my backpack. The last thing I needed was a customs agent with funny questions! I was in Europe, meaning I went to a cheese shop, selected some cheese, and they carved out some hunks from the large rounds of cheese and wrapped it in wax paper. There is no packaging and no information on the pasteurization process…
  • So, after I gave my intelligent answer of “HUH,” the guy burst out laughing and said, “Yes, of course you’re an American. You don’t know anything!”

    I wonder what would have happened if I had been awake. My normal, instantaneous response would have been “7 times the square root of 2”. I wonder if I would have been arrested if I said that….


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