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The Penknife Story

Dad told mom I was crying like a baby when it happened. He was right, I was bawling like the biggest 23-year-old baby in the world.  Snot drooling down my nose; mouth gasping for air in between sobs. I cried so hard I had the best sleep on my 4 hour flight to Taipei.

At the rate I was crying, you’d think I just lost someone dear in my life. Nobody died, but I did lose something I truly cherished – my penknife. It was gorgeous. It was a Swiss Army penknife with my name carefully engraved in ivory-white. The top and bottom boast a deep shade of crimson red while the sides were silver. When it’s closed, it fits perfectly in the palm of my hand; when it’s open, all eight tools spread out like a dangerous metallic fan that could easily poke your eyes out.

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I love that penknife like Gollum adored the ring. Dad bought it for me in Switzerland when he and mom went for a holiday in Europe. My father is the worst when it comes to gift-giving but this was one gift he got right. He knew it was the perfect gift for his little girl, after all, she goes camping, backpacking, and diving a little too often. It’s either that, or he was tired of me constantly stealing his old penknife from his scoutmaster days. I prefer to believe the former.

Mom never fails to remind me the trouble dad went through because of my penknife. They were at the airport going through security for their flight back to Malaysia when they were stopped by immigration officers. Dad forgot that he still had the penknife in his carry on. However, he wasn’t going to let them take my penknife away. With only 20 minutes to boarding, he Usain Bolt-ed all the way back to the check-in counter to store the penknife in his check-in luggage.

“Do you know HOW BIG the airport is? It’s HUGE!!” Mom would always answer her own question. “Your poor father ran so much, when he came back his face was so red and he was panting badly.” She then tells me how dad got back just in time for the boarding. I’ve heard this story at least four times now.

The best parents a girl can have. Here we are trying to blend in with the locals in Bali.

The best parents a girl can have. Here we are trying to blend in with the locals in Bali.

“You are just like your father,” mom said when she saw me packing for a nine-day backpacking trip across Taiwan. “Both of you can never sit still at home.”

Don’t tell my mom I said this, but she was right.

I was going through airport security at LCCT when it happened just like de javu. Immigration officers stopped me, pointing at the x-ray image of my backpack. The haze of my early morning grogginess immediately cleared; my heart sunk to the bottom of the earth. I didn’t have to wait for them to pull my bag out from the x-ray machine to know what had set off the alarm – my penknife.

One of the immigration officers, a middle-aged man smart in his navy blue uniform took the penknife away from me. The next few seconds happened in slow motion: I watch my penknife sparkled as it rolled in his hands. He dropped it amongst half-empty bottles of water, razors, and 150ml bottles of lotion. I turned my head and saw a big trash can filled with contraband. I gasped, realising my precious penknife was bound for the trash.

Without a plan, a choice, nor a check-in luggage, I did the only thing I could do, I beg and pleaded. “Abang, please,” I told him I was harmless, I told him it was an honest mistake, and that I wasn’t going to blow the plane up. I wouldn’t even know how to do that. From my tear-filled eyes all I could see was the slow shake of his head, his eyes avoiding mine. “No,” he said again and again, crushing my little heart into pieces.

My travel buddy had to pull me away from the immigration officer. On our way to the boarding gate, I even tried bargaining with a duty-free store shopkeeper to safe-keep the penknife for me until I come back, hoping the river running down my cheeks would persuade him. But he didn’t fancy being fired from his job.

By now the floodgates have turned my river into a waterfall. I couldn’t believe I’ve lost my penknife. When we arrived at the boarding gate I rang dad, apologising like I’m the bastard child who had just failed an exam.

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It was 15 minutes to boarding but I could not bring myself to get on the plane without trying everything I can to retrieve my penknife.

An idea popped into my head.

I tore off a page from my notebook and scribbled a letter to the immigration officer, pleading with him one last time not to chuck my penknife. In between my chicken scratch was a sob story about why that little penknife was so important. I ended the letter with mum’s phone number, and sealed it with hope that he would be able to read my handwriting.

“Do you think this will work?” I asked my friend.

“No, Mei. We have to board soon, we’re gonna miss our flight!” He was right but I was in denial.

With the letter clutched in my hand, I ran as fast as dad did when he raced to keep my penknife in the check-in luggage. Thank goodess LCCT was small.

“I can’t take this. I can’t read this.” The immigration officer said, masking his surprise that the snot-faced girl returned.

“Just take it, you don’t even have to read it. Please, I just need to know I tried,” I bargained with him one last time, my hands outstretched with the piece of paper hanging between us. He nodded a kind, understanding nod, and kept the letter in his pocket.

I respected the immigration officer’s decision to follow the rules, but it didn’t hurt any less. It was like I lost a good friend. I comforted myself with the fact that I tried everything short of abandoning my flight.

“This is the worst trip ever,” I sulked angrily like a spoilt 10-year-old while the plane took off. I hated myself and unreasonable airplane rules.

Over the next few days, the sight and sounds of being in an exciting new country dulled the pain of my loss. I had moved past depression and was at the final stage of grieving: acceptance.I was learning to get over it like a painful break up.

The scene I woke up to after having the best post-cry sleep on my flight to Taipei.

The scene I woke up to after having the best post-cry sleep on my flight to Taipei.

Three days later, I received a call from mom.

“Your dad said you cried like a baby,” mom laughed at me. I rolled my eyes. Must we bring up painful memories?

Then mum dropped the best news ever  – the immigration officer had called her. He had saved my penknife from the trash can and was waiting to return it to me. I couldn’t believe it, he actually read my letter and understood my terrible handwriting.

His kindness didn’t stop there. My mom offered to make the drive up to LCCT to meet him but he declined. He was happy to wait for my return and hand it to me personally. It was his day off, but he would drive an hour from Seremban just to meet me.

“This is the best trip ever!” I beamed at my friend after putting down the phone.

It was 9pm when I returned to LCCT a week later. I hurried to the arrival gate, where the penknife saviour was awaiting. I broke into the biggest smile when I spotted him at a corner and excitedly ran towards him like he was an old friend.

Just as I was about to give him the happiest hello, he quietly waved me to follow him. He turned his back and slowly walked to a dark corner. He looked ominous in his black jacket with his hands hiding in his pants pocket.

Standing in the dark corner, it felt like we were about to deal drugs. There were no small talk during the exchange. He immediately took out my penknife from his pocket, which he clumsily wrapped in the letter I had written for him. To show my gratitude, I handed him a packet of chocolates and a little keychain I had bought for him. The sight of the gifts frightened him.

“I can’t take this!” He shook his head.

“Oh,  no. Please. It’s not a bribe. It’s just something small to thank you.”

After a few seconds of hesitation, he accepted the gifts and quietly walked away. I couldn’t thank him enough and he simply accepted it with a nod.

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I am grateful for many people in my life, and that immigration officer is one of them. Till this day I still wonder if he remembers me and our shady exchange in the dark two years ago.

I wonder why he decided to read the letter, and what made him change his mind. I wonder what went through his head when he secretly pocketed the penknife, if he thinks he had committed a crime. I wonder if he put his job on the line because of me. I wonder if he felt bad for it, and if he thinks it was a risk worth taking for a stranger.

Most importantly, I wonder if he remembers the look of joy and gratefulness when he put the penknife back in my hands. I hope he does because I will always remember feeling so touched that he went out of his way to return something that meant the world to me. I was just a stranger after all. That penknife did mean the world to me, but the sincere kindness his showed meant the world to me as well.

Thank you, Abang Immigration Officer. You are a kind man.

P/S: I hope this article doesn’t get you in trouble.
Update: I’ve learnt that immigration officers do not man the security checkpoint. Instead, it’s the auxiliary police under aviation security. 

I’m dedicating this blog to personal travel stories that’ll teach and inspire. If you like traveling vicariously through my stories, leave a comment and follow me on Facebook and Instagram for more.  

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