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  • Writer's pictureJane Cooper Hong

Customs and the Perfect Gift

From Jan. 5, 2019

When I first went to Taiwan in August of 1980, every piece of clothing I picked up, every toy, every widget was stamped "Made in Taiwan." Of course in today's market, "Made in China" has replaced "Made in Taiwan" as the ubiquitous sticker found on every purchase. Imagine for a moment that you wanted to buy a gift today for someone in China. What would you buy them that isn't already made in their country? Amazingly enough, even some of the little cloisonne U.S. flag pins politicians wear are made in China. When I returned to Taiwan in 1983 and married my husband, I was confounded by the challenge of what to bring home to my new Taiwanese family members. What would be special, original, uniquely American?

I bought American cosmetics and toiletries, such as deodorant, that weren't available in Taiwan at that time. (Thereafter, I shipped dozens if not hundreds of Lady Speed Stick packages from the States to Taiwan; deodorant was a hit. If only I'd invested in some sort of an import arrangement!) I bought some of the trusted household cleaning products from my own youth--items like Pledge and Pine-Sol that smelled clean and fresh. But my one truly brilliant purchase, the one I was most excited about, was pigeon vitamins. My husband's uncle raced homing pigeons, and I had found in Minneapolis a globally recognized supplier of pigeon vitamins. In the years before Google and GPS, finding such a place required a serendipitous combination of sheer diligence and blind luck. With map in hand, I made my way across the Twin Cities and brought home an ungainly 3-gallon, wide-mouthed plastic jar full of pigeon vitamins.

Along with my skills at finding unique gift items for the family, I was very proud of my packing capabilities--my fine-tuned knack for being able to fit every newly purchased item into my two before-their-time soft-sided suitcases. But alas, the water-cooler-sized plastic jar was too much even for my amazing luggage. In another stroke of genius, I carefully parceled the pigeon vitamins into about three dozen plastic bags, which I was able to slip into every small nook and cranny in my suitcase--inside my shoes, in the cups of my bras, between the frame ridges of the suitcase, as padding between the layers of cosmetics and deodorant even.

It was perfect, and I was completely taken with my own brilliance--until I entered R.O.C. Customs, and the inspector pulled the first plastic bag full of white powder from its hiding place beneath the first layer of deodorant. I cringed. I winced. I had sickening flashbacks of the 1978 movie, "Midnight Express," the story of a young man caught smuggling what he thinks is an innocent amount of drugs out of Turkey. He is thrown into prison and tortured into insanity.

I have never felt so stupid, naive, embarrassed or terrified in my life. How could I have thought for 10 seconds, much less a 24-hour plane ride, that packaging white powder in plastic bags was a good idea? The look on the customs agent's face was enough to make me hurl right there on the spot. He had caught The Big One--me--the American wife of a Taiwanese man whose family would be vilified for their connections to the Minnesota drug syndicate where I had purchased the white powder with an untold street value.

I spoke in rapid-fire Chinese: "Pigeon vitamins. They're pigeon vitamins. My uncle--my husband's uncle--races homing pigeons. I wanted to buy the very best gift." I tucked my hands up under my arms the way you do for the chicken dance, and flapped my "wings." "Pigeon vitamins. They're pigeon vitamins." Not convinced that I, the whacko crazy foreigner, was making any sense, I switched to English. I said the same thing. I kept flapping my wings.

By this time, the customs agent had pulled several more plastic bags of white powder from their carefully concealed locations in my luggage. He called another agent over to stand with me. He went for reinforcements. They called me aside to meet with someone with more stripes on his uniform. I proceeded again with my spiel in Chinese and English. "Pigeon vitamins. Really," I pleaded, wings still flapping madly. They conferred. The senior agent dipped a finger into one of the bags and sniffed and tasted. I personally couldn't tell you what the difference is in the taste or smell of heroin or cocaine vs. pigeon vitamins, but I sure was hoping it was profound.

He conferred again, and then he looked up at me (still flapping and saying "Geh-dz-deh wei-da-min. Jen-deh. Pigeon vitamins. Really.") He nodded his head and broke into a large smile. "Pigeon vitamins. We know. No smuggler so stupid. This very perfect gift for uncle. You speak Chinese is not so bad. Tell uncle enjoy vitamin--and story of very good vitamin present."

Sure. Uncle did enjoy the gift. But I think he enjoyed the story even more.

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