My Weakness, My Strength… My Nationality

Reactions have varied between extremes when I’ve told people where I’m from- some absolutely heartwarming, and some utterly disillusioning.

The idea for this version of this post came to me when I faced my first real ‘moment’ because I was an Indian. At that time, I was terrified, humiliated and very, very pissed off… And ready to shoot nasty words at anyone who would listen.

I had been longing to go to Romania for months. In fact, it was the first country I looked up after moving to Milan. I quickly realised it was not part of the Schengen zone, and put it out of my mind. Months later, on a tip from someone, I dug a little deeper and found that I could, in fact, visit, but only for five days in transit. Bulgaria presented the same conditions and, after some planning, I was excited at my upcoming 9 day trip through these two countries.

I was so restless I couldn’t sleep all night. I caught the 5am shuttle to the airport, and reached wayyy early, because I just couldn’t wait.

‘You can’t go to Romania’, the lady at the check-in counter said flatly. There was no use trying to but-but- my way out of the situation, because she obviously knew the rules better than I did. Basically, I needed to show proof that I’m leaving the country in five days to be able to get in. Fair enough. I should have thought of that. The people at the ticketing office were helpful and sold me a reservation on a Bucharest-Sofia flight. I passed immigration at Milan’s airport smoothly and thought the worst was behind me.

Ah, how mistaken I was.

At the airport in Timisoara, I joined the non-EU passport queue. I showed the slightly intimidating looking man my passport, my Italian resident permit and the reservation. His eyes flicked from my face to my passport several times.

‘Why are you going to Romania?’
‘Uh… Tourism’
Silence.
‘How long will you be there?’
‘5 days’
Silence.
‘HOW LONG WILL YOU BE IN ROMANIA? WHY ARE YOU GOING TO ROMANIA?’
I was shocked at his newly raised voice and his stern expression.
‘I… I’m leaving on the first. I’m just going to travel’
‘Stand there’, he barked.

So I stood in the corner while he called his colleague. I stood there and watched all the other people in the queue pass me by, some looking at me with curious expressions, and some with pity. I stood there for a good ten minutes till another man arrived who asked me to follow him and took me into an office. He asked me the same questions again and again, again and again, and then asked me to follow him back to the first man. They whispered to each other and scrutinized all my documents all over again while I stared unblinkingly at them, because if I blinked, the tears that were glazing my eyes would fall. I knew it was not a problem that was caused because I was a non-EU citizen, because everyone else in the queue was not EU either. Finally, thankfully, they let me through. I was annoyed, to say the least, after this experience. But since the rest of my trip was quite good, I decided to put it out of my mind (after complaining to everyone who would listen).

Fast forward 10 days (almost exactly a month ago), I was at the Thessaloniki airport, waiting to check in for my flight to London where I would meet my sister.

The lady at the check in counter flipped through my passport and asked me where I’m from. She whispered something to her colleague, and left without a word to me. She came back and told me I don’t have a valid visa. Except that I did. Which I pointed out to her. She looked like she felt stupid, apologized and stamped her approval. I just rolled my eyes and went through, because this mahaan lady had somehow skipped the page of the visa, and instead of asking me, went crying to her superior. Idiot.

But, anyway… I moved on to immigration. The girl looked at my passport and my face several times. ‘I’ve lost weight since then’, I told her. She grinned and asked me where my glasses were. I thought she was playing around, and offered to put on my glasses so she could be sure I’m the same person (I was wearing contacts). Then she asked me to wait and got this burly officer. He took me in to some office, and a repeat of Romania happened. Except that this time it was ten times worse.

Since it’s been a while and my anger has mellowed down somewhat, here’s a screenshot of a facebook status I posted that day that accurately sums up all the humiliation and rage I felt that night.

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When I first started to write about how the world sees India several weeks ago (I never go around to completing that post), I started out on a very positive note. So many people approached me all the time just because they were fascinated with my nationality. I was invited into peoples’ homes, during couchsurfing and otherwise, just because they love India. Some had been to India, some always wanted to go, some practice yoga, some have Indian ancestors… People who had been to India raved about the hospitality and how wonderful the people are. I had no experiences I could describe as even vaguely negative when I was dealing with regular people.

Irina, one of my hosts in Berlin, had backpacked in India for three months. She told me again and again that the best couchsurfing experiences she had had were in India. There was always Indian music playing in her home. And just before I was leaving, she brought out this giant super-detailed map of North India and asked me to mark out some places she read out from a list. (It took me longer to find some of those places than I like to admit. Oops!)

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Viktor and Katka, my hosts in Prague, have been to India four times, and they’re already planning their fifth. Katka had a sari which she made me drape on her, while Viktor recorded the entire thing so they could learn.

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Ugi grabbed my attention when he told me he’s into yoga, and that ‘Aishwarya Rai is very beautiful’. I ended up having deep discussions with him about Hinduism. He could very much hold his own on that topic. I never expected a Croatian to know so much about us.

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I was asking Liliana for directions to the city centre when I was on the train to Bucharest. She insisted that I stay with her that night, because she had been to India 20 years ago and someone had done the same for her, and she loved India.

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(I should stop now. If I begin to list every expression of India-love I experienced, I’m going to run out of memory space on the blog 😛 I think I’ll dedicate a post to that soon.)

BUT… When it came to dealing with officials. My nationality became my liability. Everytime I was going through a border I was literally on the edge of my seat praying no one would cause any trouble. And most times, my prayers went unanswered.

I don’t really know how to feel. For most of the time, I felt so very loved. It was right at the fag end of my year abroad that I had the misfortune of going through these experiences. Have we really set that bad an impression that they have to treat us like this?
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12 responses to “My Weakness, My Strength… My Nationality

  1. Prejudice does not need a reason. Unfortunate that you had to go through all that. I`ve had “mixed” experiences living in Germany for the last three years. Balancing expectations when it comes to niceness might help :).

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  3. Hey surya, i wish i cud be in ur shoes literally for a while, so as 2 feel more alive. i love travelling…but say fate…never have been so blessed!…i take my tym 2 stare all the photo galleries of my frnds who madly travel…neways coming back 2 this post …really liked it!
    I and my husband were forced to leave london due to some visa issues…4 years ago, when we were desperate 2 settle down der…all this happens as some 2 smart people…find ways 2 play with rules/policies of govt.’s forcing them 2 take stringent action and lay more ‘silly’ rules…and deprive others of their opportunity of a better future….
    But then happy n glad that u had gud experiences 2 fill ur memory more…!

    keep travelling !!!

    • Thanks a lot, Rajeetha! I can’t even begin to imagine the disappointment you and your husband must have felt at that. I can never imagine settling outside India, but I did find London very, very amazing!!
      Yeah, and seriously, these ‘smart’ people ruin it for everyone. I hope these things change and we Indians don’t have to go through all this humiliation anymore.

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