One of the Smile-O-Meters you might encounter at the Immigration desk

Okay, I’ll put it out there… Nothing in my life raises such a nervous sweat than going through immigration at an airport. And that goes for driving across international boarders too. I am the obvious victim of watching too many cheesy TV shows and Hollywood movies! I can’t help it, when I approach an immigration kiosk or gate, my skin becomes clammy and I begin to rehearse what I will say if questioned, hauled over and stripped searched!

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with your entry into China? Good question. I have entered China from two locations, Beijing and Hong Kong/Shenzhen Customs. Both are the same in their very quaint and ridiculously cute way.

Here’s how it works… From Toronto, Canada, China is anywhere between a quick 13-hour flight or a longer, thrombosis-inducing 17-hour feat of endurance into Hong Kong. No matter how you get to China, you pass through the usual bored State Employees eying your exhausted brow with suspicion. But it is the last desk through which you pass that brightens your mood a bit and takes you aback and cock your head a bit…

After your precious passport has been stamped a few times and handed back by the State Employee, you are given a smile and a nod of the head. A nod?

The first time I encountered the Nod was two years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chinese employees, ranging from street cleaners to customs officials were in hyper-mode learning what Westerners like, and more importantly what they don’t like. This covered everything from never asking how much money you make, to how old you are, to the worst of Western phobias – spitting. SARS gave the Chinese public a boost in the negativities of expectorating, but tradition has proved too strong to even win this Olympian battle.

But I digress…

The nod! Yes! I first encountered it and was given a very disapproving scowl by the immigration lad at the time. But now, several times wiser, I am hip to the Nod.

The nod refers to a glance down at a small key pad right in front of you as you clutch your sweat-soaked passport. The key pad has five bright yellow circles with various forms of a smiley face. From an insanely  jubilant happy face for a job well done, all the way down to a scowl for a job indeed worthy of dismissal.

Visitors are meant to offer their finger, pressing the degree of smile-ness that best reflects the service and courtesy that the immigration official has bestowed upon you. After all, this person is your first real contact with China. And China wants, and needs to know how it is doing winning the hearts & minds of its various international visitors.

Now that I am hip to the whole Happy Face thing, I know what to do. Smile. Slowly glance down – like you’ve done it a million times before – and totally press the bright yellow circle with the insanely happy smily face. You will know which one, as it it is the one that is the most worn on the key pad.

Deviating from that insanely smiling face on the extreme left of the Smile-O-Meter is bound to steer your karma in a direction you don’t want to go! The first time I got the nod directing my attention to the Smile-O-Meter, I had no idea what it was. Puzzled, I looked at it, glanced up to the State Employee, then back down again. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Eventually I was given a very disapproving sad face by the State Employee and nodded to be on my way.

So now you know! Get your immigration papers in order, take a calming & relaxing breath and always, always press the most worn happy face on the key pad. You can then enjoy your trip knowing you have helped an underpaid public servant and you can freely shop for as many scarves as you wish with a clear conscience.

This has been a public service blog post!



  1. Clarinda Armstrong says:

    hahahaaaa! I know EXACTLY what you are talking about!!! Those happy face things are weird. I did not know what it was either. I have traveled all over the world but never saw anything like it. You have done world travellers a good service sir!!!

  2. Blythe Maria says:

    Who was the man who wrote the Catcher In The Rye? We all had to read it for school!

    Your style and humour is just the same. This was insanely funny! I will tell everyone to read it.

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