I brought my gaohu along with me on the trip, both for continuity of practice and because I had a command performance; a friend that Mom and Dad Pony made on the China trip would be visiting and would want to hear me play. Now, when I travel with the gaohu, I never ever check it. The instrument and its case together weigh only about three pounds, and that's too delicate to trust to airline baggage handlers. So it needs to go through the X-ray machine at security.
Usually, this isn't a problem. Most TSA agents either pass it through without comment, because it's pretty clearly some sort of musical instrument. Some TSA agents ask what it is, because it doesn't look like any Western orchestra instrument. The answer I give these agents is "it's a Chinese violin." This answer is just accurate enough to reassure them that a) the gaohu is a musical instrument, not a weirdly arranged pipe bomb, and b) it's not Western, and that's why they don't recognize it. Most TSA agents are satisfied with this answer.
Well, on my way out of Midway, I ran into the one guy who wasn't. First of all, security at Midway was backed up, as usual. Midway has about fifteen security lanes, but only eight metal detectors, so there's always a frustrating bottleneck. After I had inched my way through the lines, gotten everything up onto the belt, including a long, delicate instrument case that must have some clearance before and after it, and walked through the metal detector, the TSA guy stopped the belt with the gaohu still under the metal hood, so I could see it but not reach it.
"Ma'am," he asked, in that officious voice, "is this your bag?"
"Yes, it is," I said, putting my shoes on.
"What is it?"
"It's a Chinese violin," I answered, as I always do.
Unfortunately, this guy wasn't about to take "Chinese violin" for an answer. With hundreds of travelers waiting on our every word, he gave me the stink-eye and demanded to know what I meant by that remark.
Well. As longtime readers may recall, I took a sixteen-week course in old-style organology, taught by none other than my Masters advisor herself. You do NOT mess with an organologist trained by this lady. What that TSA agent wanted, he would have.
I gave him my sweetest, least terrorist-like smile, and then let him have it with both barrels. "The name of this instrument is a gaohu. It is the piccolo or soprano form of an ancient instrument called the erhu that originated in Western China. Like the erhu, the gaohu is a two-stringed bowed chordophone, a lute, specifically a spike fiddle. The gaohu was developed in the early 1920s and is used in the performance of Cantonese opera. I play Chinese folk tunes, American and Scottish hymns, airs and jigs, and the Israeli national anthem on it. Would you like me to play you something?"
At the end of this speech, he kind of flapped his jaw for a few moments, and then choked out, ". . . no, thank you, you can go now . . ." Whereupon I picked up the case and stalked off to catch my flight.
I know that the I.N.P.O.D. didn't spend sixteen weeks teaching me organology just so I could use it to tell off minor government functionaries, but one can't use one's powers for good all the time. Organology For The Win!