Embarrassment of Riches

People are supposed to have a complex about the photos in their passports and other IDs, not about the IDs themselves.

Enter yours truly.

I’m told that I got my first passport at the age of four. We never ended up moving to New York so I don’t know what happened to it. (Sometimes I wonder how that parallel me, who grew up in NYC, is doing).

The second time I got a passport I was on the cusp of twelve. From the state of my hair and the frown on my face in the photo, it’s not hard to estimate just how much of a clue I had about what was going on. I remember that we were on our way to a routine weekend family gathering in the Old Airport area when all of a sudden (to me), we took a detour through Piassa and next thing I know I’m staring at a camera. That passport didn’t see much of the light of day either. I only went as far as Vienna, from Addis Ababa, with it. When it expired, it was returned from whence it came, which is more than can be said for its former owner. In a way, the expression on that first passport never really left my face.

The third passport that I was issued was for the next big leap from Geneva to Toronto to start university. By then I was a skinny teenager. A pissed off one too, because I’d just come home from school limping from an overzealous street hockey game on sports day only to have to go back out and get a passport photo taken. I looked mighty sour in that photo, but it was the only time in my life that I would be a skinny anything so I didn’t mind it afterwards. It never embarrassed me the way identity card photos are supposed to. Come to think of it, I actually have good luck when it comes to those kinds of photos. You should see my driver’s license. Instead, the thing I started to become self-conscious about was the document itself.

At first it was common curiosity. I doubt I’m the only one who tries to get a peek at the cover of people’s passports while waiting in line at border control. Partly it’s to see if I guessed right and partly it’s to see if the person matches up with the paper. After I became responsible for myself while travelling – meaning I had to carry my passport myself – revealing the front of it to public view became an explicit choice rather than a random matter of which way I happened to be holding it. I suppose it depended on what mood I was in, whether I was proud to be Ethiopian that day or not, whether it was a good environment to feel such pride or not. When I was passing through the Caribbean, I practically waved that thing. Europe was a different story. Regardless of where I went, most often as a solo female traveller of colour, I knew I was being judged. Showing my passport openly, or not, helped me feel some sense of control over how.

In those early days, it never even occurred to me that I would one day become a Canadian. Especially not during a brief period of my life when I had two Ethiopian passports, one of which contained a multiple-entry visa for America with some validity left on it. (Remembering that time is how I got the idea for the title of this blog entry, btw.)

The process of becoming Canadian was so gradual that I had ample time to fine-tune how to handle, literally, that identity. The practice round was with the Permanent Resident card (with forgettable but decent photo). When travelling, it was necessary for me to show both my Ethiopian passport and Canadian PR card at the same time. Moments after one rendered me undesirable at check points, the other cleared the way. Take a wild guess which was which. I liked to keep the PR card right on top of my passport, just to keep the other weirdos like me with nothing better to in the queue guessing.

I dreaded the moment when I would have to give up my Ethiopian passport almost as much as I anticipated the moment when I would turn in the PR card in exchange for my Canadian one. I wanted to keep my Ethiopian passport, as a souvenir you might say. Have my cake and eat it too, you might say. Say whatever. Unfortunately, for someone like me (a square), that wasn’t an option. A consolation prize became available a few years later, though, in the form of the Yellow Card for Ethiopian-born foreigners. As to why it’s called yellow, I have no idea. Maybe it has something to do with yellow being one of the colours of the flag and red being too reminiscent of socialism and green, as in “green card”, just being a cruel joke. Notwithstanding this and the other politics surrounding it, I was proud to become the owner of a YC. But apparently not proud enough, because I unquestioningly lined up to pay USD$25 for an entry visa instead of taking advantage of the free entry/exit – one of the many citizen privileges the YC  granted me – the last time I went to Ethiopia. When I later realized my mistake, I regretted the missed opportunity only a little bit. Undergoing the visa procedure, not flashing the Yellow and sailing through, felt like the natural thing to do.

Now, with a lightweight Canadian passport displaying a grown-up photo complete with lipstick, waxed eyebrows and stylish haircut, I couldn’t feel more encumbered. Still self-conscious as ever, equal parts proud and ashamed, as terrified of losing it as I am of being accused of the horrible sin of forgery (my hair is long again, I’m off contact lenses, and the state of my eyebrows and lips is hit and miss), I’ve come to terms with the fact that the sense of unease that is the sum of it all will linger indefinitely. I take pleasure in registering as a Canadian abroad whenever I’m in a new country and there are times when I am waiting in line and I happily keep my passport visible, but there are just as many times when I answer Ethiopia to the question Where are you from? and purposely keep my passport face down at airports until the last possible moment.

Since coming to Asia, there has been a silver lining, or something like it. The ubiquity of whitening products, idolization of all things European, unfailing mental stagger on the part of the locals at reconciling a Canadian identity with a non-white face are only a few examples of the particular flavour of ignorance and racism endemic to these parts. In this environment, a Canadian passport is a source of sweet satisfaction, revenge, often both. Being stopped and asked to show my passport long after I’ve cleared border security is not annoying, it brings a smile to my face instead because I know that in the next moment the official in question will deflate like a popped ballon as he sheepishly hands back the passport and waves me on. Sometimes they’re too embarrassed to even open it. A flash of the front cover is enough. Sloppy work, if you ask me. Another way this situation plays out is how – in airports but also in hotels and anywhere else it is required – I might as well be invisible to all around until my passport comes into view. Then, there is an almost physical change in some of my fellow beings as they become charged with interest, do a double-take, or strike up a conversation which often starts with them stating the obvious You’re Canadian. It’s a like a magic trick: now you see her, now you don’t.

Predictably, this has gone to my head a little bit. Once, on returning to Wenzhou, I demanded to know why a guard asked me for my passport after I had already cleared security. What I got for it was a search of my baggage in a special room. Since I was coming from Hong Kong with a whole load of West African foods, the incident was kind of embarrassing and, in a roundabout way, confirmed their prejudices. Thank god they stopped before they got to the whole dried fish. And recently, as I planned my travels around Asia, I booked all my tickets without once stopping to wonder if I needed a visa for any of the countries I planned on passing through. I simply assumed I could come and go as I pleased. Thankfully, no one but my macbook was around to witness me fixing that arrogant blunder with many a visit and phone call to embassies and visa hotlines. Then, after I did the necessary research, I took the countries that had visa requirements off my itinerary. Now what does that say?

Well, if there’s any justice I will hopefully take a horrible photo when it’s time to renew my passport, then I’ll really have something to worry about.

2 thoughts on “Embarrassment of Riches

  1. Honey, all you need to do in order to take back all your embaressing moments about your old ID pictures is ask me to send you a copy of my brand new driver’s licence …..


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