Traveling With the Right Kind of Passport

Amartya Sen introduces us to his Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny with the following rather well-known little story:

Some years ago when I was returning to England from a short trip abroad (I was then Master of Trinity College in Cambridge), the immigration officer at Heathrow, who scrutinized my Indian passport rather thoroughly, posed a philosophical question of some intricacy. Looking at my home address on the immigration form, he asked me whether the Master, whose hospitality I evidently enjoyed, was a close friend of mine. This gave me pause since it was not altogether clear to me whether I could claim to be a friend of myself. On some reflection, I came to the conclusion that the answer must be yes, since I often treat myself in a fairly friendly way, and furthermore, when I say silly things, I can immediately see that with friends like me, I do not need any enemies. Since all this took some time to work out, the immigration officer wanted to know why exactly did I hesitate, and in particular whether there was some irregularity in my being in Britain.

The petty harassment and humiliation at this story’s core–caused by the failure of imagination on the the immigration officer’s part–is here artfully pressed into service as prologue for a philosophical discussion of the problem of identity; Sen does not dwell on it any longer.

Sen’s story does however remind us that passports, markers of citizenship, serve as guarantors of convenience and bulwarks against all kinds of threats, including the psychic ones that Sen was subjected to above. When I became an American citizen in December 2000, and began traveling with an American passport (my first journey with it was to New Zealand in March 2001), I suddenly became aware of how significantly the anxiety I associated with overseas travel had been attenuated: my pre-travel preparations became shorter; I did not have to deal with queues at consulates and embassies; I did not have to decipher bureaucratic documents to figure out visa requirements; I did not have to subject myself to inane questioning from immigration officers; and so on.

The world suddenly appeared a much more tractable space. Nothing about me, as far as I could tell, had changed: I professed the same political and religious beliefs; my physical composition–give or take a few pounds–was the same; but I was now a much more desirable person, no longer a possible societal threat, a possible burden on the exchequer of those nations who had sought extensive bank guarantees before granting me even a tourist visa.

Shortly after I became an American citizen, a friend of mine caustically suggested I had been lazy and insufficiently “loyal” to my former nation. I was stung at first, but then forgave him. He did, after all, travel with a European Union passport.

Note: Ironically, since obtaining US citizenship, the one country I did have to get a visa for was my country of former citizenship, India. My trials and travails with the processes that entailed have been described before on this blog.









One thought on “Traveling With the Right Kind of Passport

  1. I had a professor who admired Sen very much. Sen always has something insightful to say, doesn’t he? I have only ever had a U.S. Passport, and I can only imagine the derision and discrimination citizens of some countries must face… a not-so subtle reminder of the global hierarchy that still very much exists, and is unfortunately tied very closely to GDP…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: