The trials and tribulations of ‘travelling while brown’. The events depicted in this blog post are (unfortunately) not fictitious.
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Before I get any haters commenting on the fact that I am lucky to be able to travel at all, or that my passport makes it so easy to travel: I am well aware of the privileges that have been bestowed upon me by an accident of birth. I am a British citizen and I hold a British passport. It is maroon and says the words ‘European Union’ on it. (I’ll be keeping it looking that way until I have to renew it and sadly by then ‘The Saj’ will have made it blue and taken those words off it to show that Brexit means Brexit. Or breakfast.)
But anyway, I know that armed with my passport, I am pretty much free to roam anywhere, with visa restrictions in only a few places. And it is fairly easy for me to work anywhere too. I can literally pack and go, with little or sometimes no planning.
The truth is that with this passport privilege, I'd never even thought about my brownness as being really anything until I started travelling. And honestly, most of the time it isn’t even an issue. Sometimes it actually helps: in Sri Lanka I found it easy to travel around the country and talk to strangers primarily because of my fluency in one of the country’s main languages and also because I looked a bit Sri Lankan. In Malaysia, my appearance allowed me to blend in and enjoy that feeling of flying under the radar and not being an obvious ‘outsider’.
Nevertheless, sometimes it can feel like being brown is a major pain in the ass. More often than not, it’s a minor incident that I can just laugh off. But there have been times where I’ve been frustrated and more than a little bit upset that my ‘brownness’ has lead to me being treated differently. (And then I eventually find the funny side and put it into what I hope is a mildly entertaining blog post.)
Here are some of the gems I've experienced over the last 17 years of travelling and living abroad.
Note: in some cases, I’ve kept country names anonymous, because I don’t want to piss anyone off too much. But if you know me, you’ll know who the offenders are.
Being escorted to an immigration holding room
Okay, I will raise my hands up and admit that I did make a mistake here: on a work trip back to the UK, I (very efficiently, I thought) used my time in London to renew my passport. But I made a school-boy error - my work permit for the country I was living in was in my old passport and not in my new one. I thought that I could simply produce both passports at immigration (showing the new one and that my permit was in the old one) and everything would be fine and dandy. Nope. I happened to be residing in one of a few countries where you have to have your permit transferred into your new passport.
My colleague later told me that the best thing I could have done was to just walk up to the immigration officer and show my new passport and then enter the country as a regular tourist with a 90 day visa. Me, I tried honesty. Of course I didn't realise that there would be an issue (note to self...always do research on this stuff and double check the rules).
I stepped off the plane at 10pm, tired and ever so slightly sweaty from the 13 hour flight I'd just been on. After queuing for what felt like an age, I was finally at the counter. I presented both my passports. "This is my new passport. My work permit is in the other one", I said helpfully.
This did not help.
The immigration officer looked at me like she was experiencing a bad bowel movement and pointed to a room at the far end of the arrivals hall. "You need to go in there."
So...this was different.
Nevertheless I reasoned that it couldn't be that bad. My passport and travel documents were all in order and although I had admittedly messed up with the work visa thing, I thought I should have been allowed to enter the country normally on a tourist visa because I had a British passport (#ownthatprivilege). So, feeling a certain level of British indignation, but keeping calm, I followed the instructions and went into the room.
The room smelled strongly of sweat and there was a nervous tension in the air. Milling around were between 30 and 40 men. I wasn't sure where they were all from, but one look around told me everything I needed to know: they were all black or brown. And, I quickly concluded, probably holders of what are known as 'restricted’ or ‘difficult’ passports.
These kind of passports basically restrict the number of countries the holder can visit on a visa free or visa on arrival basis. Usually passport holders are from developing countries or from places that have been affected by conflict. Currently the passport that grants the least visa free access around the world is Afghanistan. Afghanistan passport holders can visit just 24 countries without a visa - compare that to 164 countries that I can visit on my British passport. Sri Lanka isn’t much better - usually ranked 10th from the bottom and offering visa free access to only 43 countries.
Restricted passport holders often have to go through a laborious process involving piles of paperwork, travel itineraries (with proof of flight and accommodation bookings), documents showing evidence of strong ties to their home country, long processing times and costly application fees. And they can often be rejected - in some cases multiple times.
Doesn’t seem fair does it? That’s because it’s not. Someone can’t help where they were born.
It’s a good reminder too, that travelling is a privilege and not an easily accessible right for all of us.
At the front, a woman who looked as though she would rather be somewhere else, was calling out numbers in a desultory fashion, when it seemed the mood would take her. Which wasn’t very often. A man would approach her desk, sit down and then wait for her to feel bothered enough to attend to him. She seemed to prefer talking to her colleagues.
No one came by to explain what I had to do. The woman at the desk was barely dealing with the guy in front of her. I waited for about 25 minutes to see if the process would become clear but it didn't. It then dawned on me that if I didn't do something, I was going to be here forever, waiting until every single person was processed or questioned. Plus, this surely had to be some kind of mistake. I had a British passport!
I saw a man in uniform (for the dirty minds out there, no, not the sexy kind) weaving his way through the clustered groups of men. I gestured at him frantically with one hand whilst waving my passport around with the other. "Excuse me, can you help me? I am not sure what I am supposed to do." He looked at me and for a moment seemed as confused as I was and then saw the passport in my hand. He took one look and then said nodding, "Ahhhhh, Britiiiiiish".
Was this a good thing? I could only hope so.
He guided me through the room and back out into the immigration hall and asked me which counter I had gone to. I pointed and he directed me to the front of the queue.
"This one", he said gesturing at me to the woman behind the counter, "is British".
The woman looked me up and down and laughed. "Ahhh!" she said, giggling "I looked [cue a finger going round and round her face] and thought Indian!"
I see. So being Indian means that you are sent off to the special room. And looking like you are Indian also gets you sent off to the special room. Good to know.
My British credentials (but my clearly 'non-British face) enabled me to have my passport stamped and to be on my way. As I was leaving the booth I noticed that I'd been given a one-month visitor visa instead of the regular three-month one. I turned back and asked another officer why this was.
With a face like thunder, he hissed:
"In your country we have to listen to your rules. So in our country, you listen to ours".
Was I upset? Yes by this point the tiredness, the stress, the waiting, the special room, basically everything had got to me and I burst into tears. I felt vulnerable. I hadn’t been sure if I was going to be allowed in to the country. I hadn’t been able to call Vincent. And at the back of my mind I was pretty damn sure that none of this would have happened had I been white. Basically, if I had just looked British.
But every experience is a learning experience, right? So what did I learn?
1) Don't mess up your visas or paperwork and check the rules of the country you are visiting. If I had done this I would have known that handing in two passports and having a work visa in the ‘cancelled’ passport was a big no-no.
2) Immigration officers everywhere are generally pricks. I know of plenty of my friends from around the world who have faced an intimidating interrogation at immigration in the UK so I am wondering whether being a total prick is actually part of the job application to be an immigration officer. Before the introduction of E-gates, I’ve had an immigration officer at Heathrow stare at me and then the photo in my passport for a good five minutes before telling me I was okay to go through. Maybe it was the goth-style eyeliner in my old passport that confused him.
3) Got a white friend/partner/colleague with you? Make sure that the same immigration official processes you and them. I now get Vincent to go through immigration after me (in case anything happens) and both of us try to see the same officer in the event that one of us gets treated differently. This doesn’t always work: once he was given a three month visa for somewhere and I was just given one month, by the same person, for no apparent reason.
For the record I am not saying that getting Vincent to show his white (sometimes pink, depending on the sun) face to immigration officials and then saying we are together in order to prove that I am British is the solution. It is just my coping strategy in airports and at borders where I have experienced discrimination. My alternative solution is just to grab any old white person in the airport and yell “I AM WITH THEM!” but that might not go down so well.
4) If you also suffer from British brown face, wave your privileged passport in the faces of everyone and anyone and make sure they know that despite appearances, being brown doesn't mean you can't be a citizen of Britain. And be quietly grateful that somehow having this passport means the rules are then bent for you.
5) If you are brown/black or basically a person of colour and don’t have passport privilege, it doesn’t mean that you can’t travel or that you’ll end up in ‘special’ rooms for the entirety of your holiday. You just need to make sure that you make your travel plans way in advance and that your paperwork is all on point. A pain in the ass I know but don’t let those bastards win. Pete from Bucketlistly who has travelled pretty much everywhere has a really useful guide on how he travels on a restricted passport.
Being stopped by the Po-Po
It’s late and I am coming home from the gym when my taxi driver is stopped at a police checkpoint.
The officer peers into the car, takes a long hard look at me and asks for my ID. I realised that I only have my driving license on me and today of all days, I have left a photocopy of my passport at home.
He takes the driving license and goes away for a bit. Then he comes back and says, “We don't recognise this kind of ID. Where is your passport?”
I know what is happening here. Yes I am on the back foot because I don't have the right ID on me but this dude also wants a bribe. I bristle.
"It’s at home." And then I venture, "I am British. And I work for the British government here."
Jesus. I never in my life thought I'd be playing the 'Do you know who I work for?’ line. Does that mean I've made it in life?
The officer’s face tells me that I haven't. He looks at me unbelieving about the supposed Britishness, the government, everything. I think if I told him that it gets dark at night he wouldn't believe me. Time to call out the big guns. I phone my boss. It is now 10.30pm and I am beginning to feel tired and a little desperate.
She picks up immediately and I explain what has happened. I ask the officer if he would like to talk to her. He reluctantly agrees.
He returns two minutes later and after a stern warning about how I must carry ID on me at ALL times, agrees to let me go on my way. My boss is still on the phone.
"What did you say to him?" I wondered.
"I put on my plummiest British accent and explained who I was and who you worked for."
Simple as that. Later when I asked my (white) British work colleagues if they'd ever been stopped at a police checkpoint, everyone said they'd always been waved through. And they didn't carry their passport (or even a copy of their passport) on them at all times either.
Do I have empirical evidence that I got a hard time because of my brownness? No I don't. But something tells me that the way I look didn’t go in my favour and had I been a 1000 shades lighter, the officer would have given me a cursory glance through the window and let me go on my merry way.
“How is your English so good?”
“Did you go to an English school?”
Well, technically yes - I went to a school in England, so I guess that makes it English.
“Did you study in English?”
Also technically true - all our lessons were in English.
“Can you speak Indian?”
Man, get the fuck out of here. I can feel my brain cells dying just by being in your presence.
“Where did you learn English? Because, it’s like, sooo good!”
Well, how do I explain this? Hmmm. it’s my mother tongue? I learnt it at home?
Cue silence and a look of slight disappointment due to the expectation of a more interesting answer.
I tend to get these questions when I am travelling because people simply can’t place where I am from (more on that below). And they can’t seem to fathom that someone who looks like me will speak perfect English. Or could have even been born in Britain and actually be English. Say what?! (It’s usually at this point that I also slip in that my degree and Masters are in English Language and Literature, just to really confuse them).
But it’s important to point out that this actually happens a lot more to people who visit/study/work/live in the UK and are originally from other countries. Sometimes they’ve been in the UK for 10/20/30/40+ years and they are still being asked these same damn questions, everyday, over and over. And it is offensive. As the linguist Dariusz Galasinski so eloquently put it in his blog post Your English is Excellent:
“Whenever I hear that I speak excellent English, I also hear that I am a foreigner. Yes, clever enough to learn your language very well, still, a foreigner. That means I am this person who can be asked where I am from (do you, Britons, regularly ask each other where you come from?), whether I know a person in Białystok, what my children’s names are, or indeed, where I learnt to speak English so well. The last of the questions, I think, always carries this little implication that there is something strange about it. Perhaps even suspicious. I never know whether it’s about the level of EFL teaching in Poland or about foreigners being poor at languages.
And so, as you praise me, at the same time you put me outside your world. I am one of the ‘them’, an Other. In other words, your compliment comes at a price – you and I need to reaffirm our difference.”
The thing about this is that you don’t even need to be brown for someone to say this to you. You just need to sound like you are from somewhere else.
”Where are you from?” or ”But really you are from…”
Ah, we’ve made it to this classic question/statement. If you are brown, racially ambiguous or what the Independent Group’s Angela Smith likes to call ‘a funny tinge’… let’s just be real: there are ALWAYS going to be questions about where you are from. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked this question in London and my response is usually "North West London innit?" (said with heavily affected Harrow-rude-boy twang).
This however does nothing to deter the most ardent questioner who has made it their life’s mission to work out how-on-earth someone like me happened to arrive on these glorious shores and so the conversation usually progresses to “…but like, where are you really really from?”. Being proud of my heritage and also keen to answer so that the person just goes away, I tell them that my parents are Sri Lankan and at last they seem satisfied.
When I am travelling, the question changes: instead it becomes something of a statement, where people hilariously tell me where they think I am from.
In Turkey, pretty much everyone I met asked where I was from and after I responded “England”, proceeded to tell me “But really you are from India.” “But really you are from Pakistan.” Some people would say in reference to Vincent, “He is English, but you are not.” The owner of a Turkish delight shop even sang a Bollywood song to me, despite the fact that I don’t speak or understand Hindi. It was pretty entertaining though - the dude actually had a good voice. (Still wasn’t convinced to buy his Turkish delight, but top marks for effort). Asking where someone is from seemed to just be part of casual conversation here - the areas that we were staying in were so used to tourists that this was just the opening line to get to know someone better.
In America, during an awful three months where I had decided to sell books door-to-door in Colorado to save some money for university, a man opened the door and announced, “Honey, there’s a little Indian girl at the door.” I explained that I was a university student from England and that I was selling books. “But you are really an Indian” he said matter-of-factly before again calling his wife and saying a girl all the way from India had stopped by the house and that she should come and see. I’d gone from a crummy, sweaty bookseller to a museum exhibit in a matter of minutes. Result!
I’ve been in countries where people have greeted me in every language under the sun apart from English, (including shouting “Japanese?” and then saying “Konichiwa!”). When I explain where I am from, there is a pause and the brow furrows before the inevitable statement springs forth “…but you are originally from…[insert every country apart from England].”
Of course, it can be a tad annoying to have to explain your ethnic background to numerous people everywhere you go or to be told that you are from a country that you have no link to whatsoever. Why isn’t my first answer of the UK or England acceptable? Why do people always assume that I am only a visitor in what is my birthplace and home country? Why do people feel the need to put me in a box? And isn’t the question they are really asking: “Why are you brown and saying you are from the UK when you really aren’t?”
However, I try not to take massive offence to this mainly because I would then risk becoming one of those permanently offended people. And sometimes I like to mess with people’s minds: I once told a guy at a bar (who was unnecessarily delving into my racial heritage) that I was actually white but I’d spent a really long time working on my tan in Ibiza.
I understand the curiosity: I sometimes also want to know where someone is from, especially if they have an accent that I can’t quite place. Do I ask the question? Sometimes I do, but I ensure that I do it in a way that is respectful and doesn’t make them feel like I am questioning where they’ve told me they are from.
In my case, I think the reason that many people I meet abroad are so surprised to hear that I am from England is because they don’t see the UK as being a multicultural place. To them, to be British or English, means that you have to be white. And if you are brown or black or any of the shades in between and say that you are from the UK, this can’t be the case because you don’t ‘look British’ so you must somehow just be a visitor.
Perhaps this would change if we exported fewer television programmes that perpetuate the myth of the UK being inhabited by all-white Lords and Ladies from the 18th century - as Riz Ahmed so eloquently explains in his essay in The Good Immigrant. (If you haven’t read this book, I’d encourage you to go out and buy a copy immediately!)
I suppose I could see the positive side of these interactions, which is that I have an opportunity to change someone’s opinion of what it means to look ‘British’ or even ‘French’, ‘American’ or ‘Australian’. And be glad that I have been afforded the opportunity to travel and see beyond cultural stereotypes of countries portrayed in TV, films and books.
Still annoying though.
Vincent picked me up somewhere ‘exotic’
This is closely related to the point above and is something I get mostly from other travellers and again, surprise, surprise, from people I meet at home in the UK (why you doing this to me UK? Why?). For some bizarre reason, every time I mention that we previously worked or lived in country X,Y,Z , there is always someone who asks: “So did he meet you in X,Y,Z then?”. Okay, so this could be interpreted as - “did you meet each other when you were both working abroad?'“ But then, it is usually followed up by another question: ‘So you’re from X, Y, Z?” Vincent never gets that question. He clearly doesn’t look ‘exotic’. But me? As of the last count, Vincent could have ‘discovered’ me in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Zambia, Thailand or Indonesia.
This is where I want to scream: LISTEN TO MY ACCENT AND WHAT I AM TELLING YOU. I’ve just told you we met at university in Manchester. I’ve said I am a Londoner. I have a London accent. Why do you disregard all the other stuff I’ve just said and assume I am from a far flung destination, filled with white beaches fringed by palm trees instead of the grey, grimy, North West London town, I am REALLY from?
I get it. You see my mouth moving and you hear the words…but you are distracted by my overwhelming brownness.
Sometimes this also translates into something a bit creepier. Comments like ‘I love Sri Lankan women’ and ‘your girlfriend/wife is very exotic’. Firstly, that’s very nice, but why are you telling me? Secondly, Harrow isn’t exotic. It has a Tesco and a Boots. Does that sound exotic to you? If it does, you seriously need to get out more.
Being brown ain’t a fetish bruv.
Get in the 'you look like you are carrying a bomb’ queue.
Ah, don’t you just love it when hilarious ‘random’ searches aren’t actually that random?
On our way back from a weekend break in the Middle East, there was a boarding pass check just before we entered the gate. I noticed that there were two security men pulling people out of the queue and conducting a bag check and assuming it was a random search, didn’t think much of it. After my boarding pass was checked, I walked towards the seating area and was stopped by one of the men conducting the bag searches. He motioned me towards a table to his left and then asked me to open my bag and take out all the contents. Okey doke. I just do what I am told at the airport because I DO NOT want to miss my flight, under any circumstances.
Meanwhile, Vincent was just behind me and as you do when you are travelling together, he unwittingly tried to follow me into the ‘you look like a terrorist/drug smuggler’ search area. At this point, one of the guards said, “Oh no sir, you don’t have to go there, you can go and sit down.” Vincent replied that we were together and despite the guard continuing to protest, joined me in the queue and basically volunteered to have his bag searched.
Searches complete and both in the clear, we sat down facing the entrance to the gate and watched the queue of people slowly make its way in for our flight. And it was here that we noticed the pattern. Brown or black? You win a pass to the… RANDOM SEARCH AREA! White? Cursory glance at your boarding pass and then straight to the SEATING AREA!
It was so obvious that we actually started to play a very racist game of ‘Which Area?’ to pass the time (you might have guessed that this game has very basic rules: based on a person’s race, we took a guess at which area they would be sent to). And sadly, our guesses were always right.
Racial profiling airport style.
So in conclusion…
As I said at the beginning of this post, I know how privileged I am to be able to travel at all. It is an endeavour that requires free time, money and a passport that opens up the rest of the world to you. But the reality is that as a brown/Asian traveller, I experience some discrimination even with a British passport. And whilst I could shut up about it and just say how lucky I am to travel around this wonderful world (probably accompanied by a heavily edited shot of me on Instagram looking out onto a sunset and accompanied by #blessed), on this occasion I’d rather just be truthful.
Have you been experienced any of these ‘funny tinge’ tings? Let us know in the comments below!
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