I'm not sure what defines "American." Nationalistic identity extends beyond borders where I was born, raised and enraged. Since we started a war we're international bullies, but neighbors still want

Jun 16, 2004 at 2:06 pm

I'm not sure what defines "American." Nationalistic identity extends beyond borders where I was born, raised and enraged. Since we started a war we're international bullies, but neighbors still want to borrow sugar. They try to know us beyond our Super-sized selves.

Americans in other countries signify excess and privilege. Our presence is prized in Cuba, subject of this week's cover story (see The Banana Republic).

Our presence elicits suspicion in Cuba. We're unsure about them, too.

Before Havana, this is what my mind saw: Rum-bloated prostitutes masturbating Germans to Afro-wigged congas. Cigar-thick fingers rolling leaves planted plantations ago by slaves.

Boat people buoying for freedom, destined for detention and deportation if they don't reach the beach. Tony Montana slurring Lemme endtrodooze jew do my leedle frehn and Celia Cruz barking Azucar! one way to Miami.

Truths impregnated by stereotypes. By the time I hear "Katy Weelson, Katy Weelson. Report to Customs," my American home is an abstraction dangling like a rotten carrot.

Want it? Here are the hoops. Jump, nigga. And I do. It's Cuba, after all.

By virtue of my Americanness, I'm used to my own version of privilege that entitles me to international hassle-free maneuverability. Conversely, accustomed as I am to the American home version of the hassle, it hasn't prepared me for the Samba of Cuban Customs.

I laughed at Jon and Sean Hughes, father-and-son photographers who bookended me through Havana, when they were summoned to report to the subterranean blues of Customs in the Jose Marti International Airport. "See you at home. Hopefully," I said.

I was convinced I'd been overlooked because I wasn't a white man and therefore non-threatening. Race has its privileges.

Just as I was handing my ticket to the gate agent, I heard my name over the tinny PA system. Shit.

Downstairs, the doorway is crowded. Plain-clothed and uniformed Customs agents assemble to watch the woman who'd delay the flight grill Jon about his Havana activities and plow through our belongings. She turns over underwear, souvenirs and socks like soil, tilling the landscape of our luggage for seeds of betrayal.

When she starts with Jon, her manner is disingenuously easy. She says her English is sketchy. We laugh nervously. And together they tango.

She tries tripping him up over his visa — tourist or journalist? — and the wording of his license. He plants himself against her next course. She flips through his notebook.

"Why do you write down every little thing? 'The waiter asks if he wants lobster. Yes, he says.' " Suddenly her English is as good as ours. She pulls out, examines and unrolls every piece in Jon's suitcase looking for nothing in particular but something specifically.

Jon stays cool, his hands clasped casually in front of him. He doesn't budge. It makes her angry.

She rattles something in Spanish to the gaggle of young female agents. They're superficially preoccupied counting illegal black-market cigars unsuccessfully smuggled out by a pint-sized Tito Puente sipping a mohito and sucking a cigar. I'm standing behind Sean in the doorway.

"I'll go next," I whisper. "It'll break her rhythm since she knows you're his son."

Jon is betrayed as a journalist by his sophisticated camera equipment and a single canister of film labeled "professional." While the agent harangues Jon for not registering as a journalist, a short older man, baggage handler by his uniform, sticks his head in the other door.

"Rapidamente!" he shouts. Hurry up.

Then I know we're not in any real trouble. They're mad she's detaining this flight.

When it's my turn, I use a girlhood trick. I tell the truth on myself before she wrangles details out of me. It lowers defenses. It worked on my parents.

"Me?" I say, stepping to the table where my bag's laid open like a patient for surgery. "I'm a writer. I released a book, I work on National Public Radio, on television and also for a newspaper."

"When will you be finished with your book?"

"I already am."

"What is your book about?"

She's pleased when I tell her it's about race, class and lies in America and about life in Cincinnati. She wants to see it. I'd already given it to a teacher whose name I can't recall. I produce his card, and every agent in the room writes down his name.

Then she reads a paper I should've discarded, notes from a pre-Cuba briefing.

"Don't say you are a journalist," it says. "Don't tell anyone in Havana that you are a journalist on assignment. There are spooks everywhere. Everyone works for the government."

"You know by now this isn't true?"

I wait for her to calm, look her in the eye and summon my best Greenhills High School Spanish.

"No es la verdad," I say. "It's not true. Cubans took me into their homes, fed me, escorted me around, gave me gifts and showed me love. I have friends here. That's American paranoia told to me by frightened Americans. It's not true. We've got it all wrong. I love Cuba."

Lying or scared? Something resonated.

For the first time, the plain-clothed agent makes eye contact with me. He nods in understanding.

She dismisses me. I repack my bag. Sean steps forward.

On the plane, exhausted and homeward bound, I scribble notes. Sean boards. I scan for Jon, who's buckling himself in. We're all accounted for.

Kathy's collection of columns, Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, is available in bookstores now.