A “third culture kid” comes to terms with her passport
By Dakota Hall
It was a good thing my passport was no obstacle to my Christmas trip: my first trip “home” in over six years. I feared learning how much I’d forgotten, how hard it might be to understand a menu, songs or just communicate. It was manageable though because I still knew a lot of sentences in Japanese:
“When are you going back to Yugoslavia?”
Back to Yugoslavia? I’ve never been there!
In Moscow they knew it was no longer a thing. I had some interesting evenings with Lyosha in Moscow (Russian New Year’s got a little too interesting though). Lyosha was my student, but one year older. When the course finished we still went for dinner sometimes. We spoke of science fiction novels, smiled at each other, and sometimes we made jokes about the Cold War. He took me to fix my computer and said bring an ID, so I brought my passport. I held it low and ready and could feel where his eyes were.
“Nice passport,” he smirked.
“Thanks,” I replied.
“A lot of people would like to have that passport.”
“I know,” I replied.
During those first few months in Moscow there were sentences all over the place. They were in ‘Moby Dick’, they were in Читаем по-русски, they were on the Wikipedia page for “third culture kid”.
“TCKs are particularly adept at building relationships with other cultures while not possessing a cultural identity of their own.”
“Difficulties with adjusting to adult life: the mixture of influences from the various cultures that the individual has lived can create challenges in developing an identity as well as with a sense of belonging. Feelings of rootlessness and restlessness can make the transition to adulthood a challenging period for TCKs.”
“It would be typical for a TCK to say that he is a citizen of a country, but with nothing beyond his passport to define that identification for him.”
Yes it was typical and yes I’d said it many times: “Well I have an American passport but…”
- “but I grew up in Japan.”
- “my family doesn’t even live there.”
- “I’d give it up in a second to be British if I could.”
- “I don’t care about the US, it’s just a passport for me.”
But “just” a passport? A passport is a lot of things but it’s hardly a “just”. A passport casts the net of what you can experience. A passport can save your life.
It can save your life. Though the trip never happened, there was a brief time when some connection of a connection gave the echo of a hope that I might be able to spend the summer in Iran, but it was 2011/2012 and Israel was making more trouble than usual, and over there I know they were wringing their hands too.
“But what if Israel starts bombing stuff?”
“If they do, you’ll be the first one out.”
When we were drunk on Makdisi it was easy to feel like we were all in this together, but there was a universe between us. Unlike them, I could leave. And if Israel bombed Beirut, I’d be among the first out of there too.
But why should I get out and my friends be left to die? I don’t care about the US, it’s just a passport for me.
I don’t have a favorite home, but Beirut is in the first place league. Berlin is also there, but despite it’s high ranking I learned almost no German sentences, because I didn’t care for German truth be told.
Ich arbeite freiberuflich. Ich möchte mein Visum verlängern. 
In Berlin I heard more Farsi than German. I don’t speak Farsi and I can’t read Farsi, but I still learned some Farsi sentences.
 .تعارف نکن
(The most important, of course.)
Diversity is one of things that makes Berlin so great. “Berlin accepts you for who you are. This city just takes you in.” That was true in a lot of ways. In Berlin we could all smoke weed in Görli and get ecstasy for five Euros if we bought it in bulk. We weren’t the same though, not really.
“Burning Man seems really cool. We should do a big trip to the U.S. for it next year.”
“Oh my god, that would be so fun.”
So on they talked freely, in their ignorant western European way, and though Moji seemed fine I knew why he didn’t speak. Ten years earlier he’d been accepted into a Ph.D. program at one of the best universities in the U.S. and they rejected his student visa application. They don’t tell you the reason why. He had a better shot now that he was in Schengen, and we were further from 9/11, but he said he just couldn’t go through it again.
I thought about that: what a delay in celebration that caused. He must’ve told himself, “Don’t be excited yet. You haven’t got the visa.” That must’ve been impossible. That letter must’ve induced an involuntary flutter of excitement and pride. I got into uni in a foreign country too, but when I was accepted, I celebrated straight away.
They accepted Tofy’s student visa application. We had fun laughing at the questions he had to answer.
“Are you a member of a cult or tribe?”
“Do you know how to assemble a bomb?”
Tofy later worked at the American embassy as an interpreter for refugees seeking resettlement. He said their questions were even worse. “After you arrive to the U.S., are you planning on overthrowing the U.S. government?”
Tofy’s reports on studying abroad in the U.S. were amazing to read.
“Their music invades the landscape of my dreams like their military invades the landscape of my people.”
He liked to bring it up, especially with cadets.
“You’re gonna make a fine American soldier one day, but for tonight this Arab wants some rest.”
It was a mixed bag all in all. He met a lot of jerks but he got to wear high heels in public. He even wore them to class.
Your passport doesn’t always help you though, as Ali knows very well. He’s Canadian but allots twenty extra minutes each time he has to go through immigration. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes it takes hours, you never know. It’s happened in Lebanon, in the Netherlands, in the U.S., but the questions are mostly the same:
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you really from?”
“What were you doing in Pakistan?”
“What were you doing in Afghanistan?”
What was he doing in Pakistan and Afghanistan? He’s a foreign service officer and does reporting and analysis on security issues.
“One thing I don’t like about passports is they say your place of birth,” he said. “I don’t see why that’s necessary. A citizen is a citizen, whether they’re born in Canada, Iraq or Albania.”
Because Ali could do all the security work in the world, but they’d still see his name, his face, and that he was born in Iran.
You could even have an anglicized name and be born in your passport country. They got Jeremy when he visited home from Syria, where he was studying Arabic before the war.
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you really from?”
“…Here. I was born thirty minutes from this airport.”
“Did you go to any mosques?”
“Yes, as a tourist.”
They found his books. “Is this the Quran?”
“No, it’s a novel.”
“Did you speak to any Syrians?”
“…Yes. It’s a city of four million people and I’m studying Arabic.”
“Why did you go to Lebanon at the end of the year?”
“I went to a New Year’s party in Beirut.”
“What were you really doing in Beirut?”
“I was at a New Year’s party. They have better parties than Damascus.”
“What were you really doing there?”
“I was at a gay bar.”
“What do you mean a gay bar in Beirut?”
“A gay bar. I went home with a guy.”
They finally let him go after that. “After an hour of questioning, saying I went to a gay bar and slept with someone neutralized the threat of my skin,” he said. “I always bring hard liquor with me now because of this.”
When I went to London they were weird about it too.
“Where are you staying?”
“With a friend.”
“How do you know this friend?”
“We knew each other in Istanbul.”
“What’s your friend’s name?”
“So he’s not from the Middle East, this friend?”
“…No. He’s from here.”
And I bit my tongue so it didn’t say, “Well, he’s from Cyprus too – is that in your ‘Middle East’?!”
Even if they let you in, you are always regarded with suspicion, depending on how you look. Efraín wasn’t illegal in Paris, but it didn’t stop him from getting a hand to the back of the neck that slammed him against a wall.
“Papers!” he said.
“I don’t have them on me right now, but I swear to you I have everything at home. We can go to my apartment right now and I’ll show you my papers.”
“Why do you speak French?”
“I learned French in school.”
He told me the story over jazz and local beer. “What’s this question? Of course we can learn French in Costa Rica.”
I know what it feels like to be illegal, but I don’t know what it feels like to have to be afraid of that. “Yeah, the world is a weird place,” he said. “I guess you’ll never have that, just cause of your skin color and passport, huh?”
Things like that always popped up in friends’ experiences, or in things my Turkish students would say…
“Turkish passports are awful. We can’t go anywhere.”
“Oh, come on. You guys can go some places. You don’t need a visa for Iran.”
They looked at me like I was insane. Why would we want to go there?
Turkey was a short-term thing, so I didn’t learn that many sentences.
Merhaba. Evet. Hayır. Tamam. Ben Dakota. Bir tam porsiyon çiğ köfte alabilirmiyim. 
I learned a lot more Russian sentences because Moscow was a long-term thing and there was a lot of pressure there. I felt so proud when I upgraded from «Я не говорю по-русски.»  to «Я плохо говорю по-русски.»  This was even better though:
«Извините, я плохо говорю по-русски. Я преподаватель английского. У меня собеседование в три часа. Я ищу кабинет Тани Вдовиной. Вы знаете, где это?» 
«Почему вы считаете, что плохо говорите по-русски?» he said with Moscow sincerity. «Вы говорите хорошо.»  I was high off that for weeks.
That was a great sentence. Other, presumptive sentences about my background really pissed me off and it reached a point where I changed my name.
“What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“Hahahahahahahahaha, I know you’re from the U.S. What state?”
Fuck you. You have no fucking idea where I’m from, and I’m not from a fucking “state”.
I really thought I told my friends this and they really thought I hadn’t. But to be fair to both sides, it was Berlin and we were on psychedelic drugs.
“I do like the name Dakota. It’s unusual and it sounds nice. But I didn’t like having a name where you knew my nationality from the name.”
“But it’s just a name. It doesn’t make you more American.”
Mahtab had dropped a tab alone, then got lost and showed up late to the park pretty shaken and stirred. “Hey Mahtab, did you know Dasha’s real name is Dakota?”
She burst out laughing. “That’s so American!”