The Passport- Making of an Expat, Part II

Despite my father being in the military I did not travel abroad as a child. His last lengthy stay away from home was on the USS Nimitz during my mother’s pregnancy with me. Following that he opted for domestic positions where our family could accompany him. I vaguely knew that my father had spent time abroad, but until last year I did not realize the extensiveness of his military travels: Okinawa for a lengthy stay, calls in many areas of the Pacific, all over Western Europe, and the Mediterranean. Apparently my father is quite the traveled man, and yet no stories ever came up in my family, ever. I don’t mean that I didn’t listen, and I don’t mean that we didn’t talk. It was just that my father never mentioned his time on aircraft carriers or foreign bases, and for a kid who has never left the country questions such as, “Hey dad, did you ever live in Germany?” weren’t a viable part of my vocabulary. So, according to me, my family’s experience with international consisted of a quick boarder hop into Mexico or Canada, for a picnic or to see a sight not more than fifteen minutes from the boarder. This was back in the day when passports weren’t required for boarder crossings, and my parent’s driving licenses sufficed for re-entry, and so it never really felt like a big deal. I didn’t leave the country until I was 24 years old, and even then my “leaving” was technical and accidental.

Through rumor and fairytale I somehow got it in my mind that it was an excellent idea to go work on the island territory of Guam for a winter, and in so many ways it was. I flew from L.A. through Hawaii, landed in Tuman Bay and spent three unbelievable months in a hot, wet paradise. However, Guam is a U.S. territory and since my flight never left the United States I went with just my driver’s license. I had to go through customs for the first time, ever, when my plane landed and I suddenly became confused as to the status of the island, the boarders of my nation, and international law. As they opened each of my suitcases and examined my eclectic mix of baggage I had my first inklings of curiosity about citizenship and rights. It was nothing well-formed and I would not have been able to express it in words, but I was definitely feeling the boarders more than I had ever before.

While I was on Guam I grew to appreciate its claim to being, “The place where the sun rises on the U.S.” I had always had a conception of the U.S. as being large, but with the diversity of people on Guam- Chumarro, Japanese, Korean and Philippine, and it’s huge military and strategic history I gained a new perspective of just how far the United States reached into the world. Yes, Guam is a U.S. territory, but as far as culture and experience it is more of a door to the East than any other part of the U.S. I had been in. It felt like a foreign country in many ways.

As my time on Guam progressed new laws were being passed that required a passport to get back to the mainland. About a month before I was due to leave Guam I applied for my first passport ever. The application, as many official applications are, was particularly stressful for me. Questions that are easy for most U.S. citizens have always been difficult for me. Permanent residence? I had no concept of permanency. Even in retirement my parents moved from house to house to lack of house and back to another house. I definitely had not lived in one apartment longer than a few months since I left for University. Residences for the past ten years? I couldn’t remember the addresses and phone numbers. Honestly, at times entire cities dropped out of my goldfish memory. Place of birth? That one should be simple, but I was told at the Social Security office when I was 26 that the place I had thought I was born, the city my parents lived in during my mother’s pregnancy, was not actually my place of birth as the military hospital that she birthed in was actually located in the next town over. I hadn’t thought of a passport application as an examination, but the questions were difficult and there were many of them that I eventually had to leave blank. For the two weeks that it took to process my passport I was in constant fear that it would be denied as I did not have enough coherent information to identify myself as a valid American. There were no problems, however, and a few weeks later they called me to pick up my passport.

When I went to the passport office I was ecstatic  It was a holiday for me. It was a huge event. The woman behind the counter was nice enough, but lacked my enthusiasm. She had me sign a form, gave me my passport, and reminded me to sign the first page before travelling. I opened my passport- that coveted American Eagle blue book- and read the first page, which happens to be the preamble to the U.S. constitution:

“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense  promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 

You are required to sign directly beneath that quotation, simulating the original signing of the constitution and your loyalty to your country. Now, it is my opinion that most people who get their passports have two reactions to this requirement and placement: 1) The don’t even notice it/consider it and sign without thought or delay because, hey, they can travel! or 2) They notice it and think that it is neat. They proudly sign their consent to the constitution. I, however, had a third reaction. I hesitated. I debated. I did not want to sign.

At that point in my life I was not against the way that the U.S. ran things. In fact, I thought that it was a pretty nifty country with many rights and securities that other places don’t have. I loved my life and all of the opportunities that I had been afforded. I was not anti-American, and I am still not. I think that there are many beautiful aspects to American governance. However, what I did not like was that I was forced to declare myself as an American if I wanted to travel anywhere. It was at that moment that I realized that I had no option to exist as an individual. I could not get a passport from another country, and I could not get a passport from my own country without agreeing to the way the country was ran. It seemed very limiting to me, and for the first time I had a feeling of being trapped in my citizenship. I began dreaming of times before boarders, when a traveller travelled completely on his own, without papers from the king, and others allowed him into their space (or didn’t) based on nothing more than his face and word. However, I wanted to travel, and so eventually I conceded and signed the document, not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because I needed it. Back then I did not recognize this as coercion of the state, or the hegemony of global nationalism. I just knew that it felt somehow wrong, and as I signed I was being forced into the lies of bureaucracy.

Since I had my passport I planned a trip around southeast Asia on my way back to the States. I planned three months in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
You may know it as the classic backpacker’s loop. However, due to circumstances of theft (another story in its own right) I had to cancel the trip, ended my time on Guam early, and took the first flight home I could get. The flight happened to fly through Japan, with an overnight in an airport hotel. I was able to use my virgin passport, and thoroughly. Japanese security included, staples, stamps, landing permissions, and visas. It was a beautiful page in my passport. As I stepped out of the airport, looked at the Japanese night sky, I thought to myself, “A girl could get used to this,” and at that point I decided the signature was definitely worth it. 

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