Ethiopian Identity / Travel: Southeast Asia

Canada Special

Traveling with a first generation Irish/Scottish-Canadian friend last month, we would always get asked the usual question by people we meet. “Where are you from?” As usual, I hesitate. In that sliver of time she beats me to the answer: “Canada.” The questioners nod to her, turn to me to hear my answer. Nothing forthcoming. Their face turns funny. “You too?” I flinch. I say “Yes”, itching to qualify the answer but holding back. As the days wear on, my flinches become more pronounced. So my friend, bless her soul, comes to my rescue, defensively asserting our co-Canadianness. Then it dawns on me that being the first non-white Canadian that the questioners are coming across, bring a trailblazer, involves getting singed a little bit. So I stop minding the double-takes and cross-examinations and start becoming amused by them instead. Teachable moment and whatnot.

Told that visas are on arrival in Thailand, I follow the signs pointing the way to Visa On Arrival in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Banners by the entry to the processing zone list the countries affected. I skim over the list while I fill out the form, get my passport photos ready and put my passport in hand. Like a fish in water.

I silently pray for a favorable outcome as I approach the zone. Security intercepts.
One look at me, the guard asks “Ethiopia?”.
Says I, after a nanosecond to consider the context of the situation: “No.”
He tries again: “India?”
That’s a no-brainer. Straight up “No.”
His face says the next part: Then what the heck are you?
He extends his hand for my passport. Moment he catches a glimpse of the cover his face brightens. He exclaims “Oh Canada!”, completely overwhelming my muttered explanation of same. “Canada! Oh! No need visa, no need! Canada special!” Just go back that way and enter through passport control, says he. No application, no fee, just stamp for 30 day stay. The other way, the way I was headed, the countries listed on the banner, have to pay and get only 15 days stay. The horror. “Canada special!” I echo the cheery guard. Definitely the land of smiles, and the nicest airport security I’ve yet come across thought I, until hostile female passport control officer, who puts the uneventful but very convenient 30 day stamp on my passport, sets me straight. Just as well. I will never stop feeling impending doom every time I approach one of those desks anyway.

Same day, walking though insanity that is Chatuchak Weekend Market, I pass between two males in an alley crammed with shops. One boy tall and indecipherable behind ill-fitting shades, the other shorter, tanned to the bone and handsome to the point of looking feminine. Tall, out of the blue, says “Happy Canada Day” to me. Weird, I think, half acknowledge him, and continue walking. Mr. Pretty on my left repeats the sentiment. I reply again, still unsure. Chitchat ensues. Turns out Tall is from Austria, Pretty from Vancouver Island. I identify myself Ontario, Toronto when pressed. The Austrian repeats Happy Canada Day, informs me that it’s a real holiday. Yes I know, I assure him. He triggers a round of cheers. My empty water bottle, their beer cans. Not sure how drunk he is behind those Data shades. Truth is, I had totally forgotten about Canada Day. I share this sacrilege, and also the fact that I lived in Vancouver, to Pretty. I don’t mention about having lived in Vienna. A third member of their group, a girl, emerges from nearby stall. Also Vancouver Islander. Another round of cheers, again from the Austrian. Still my water bottle sans water, still their beer cans. She is barely interested in their new friend. I sense she’s reached meeting-new-people overload. They’re leaving that day, been in Thailand for two and a half months. “That’s why I’m this color.” says Pretty, innocently pointing out his caramel skin. The irony of that hits me long after our goodbyes.

Since successfully and permanently extricating myself from the Middle Kingdom, and changing the title of this site to match, I have wondered what on earth I would continue to write about. No doubt, those are some bizarre shoes to fill. But there’s always hope I guess, as long as I continue to be Canada Special.

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