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!”
But with Americans too I was often cute and odd. When Farinaz visited over the summer she taught me the slang term “basic” and I was dropping it every chance I could get.
“You’re a little basic yourself, Dasha.”
“What? I’m not basic!”
“You’re a little basic. I could see you drinking a chai latte.”
“Chai lattes are basic?”
“Yes, chai lattes are basic.”
“Oh, then I’m definitely a little basic because I love chai lattes.”
“I didn’t know food could be basic. What other food is basic?”
My Russian friends wouldn’t call me Dasha though. They thought it was ridiculous for me to have a Russian name when I was such a foreigner. They were definitely right.
Tania was my best friend that year and she called me Dakota. We did a Balkan trip in the summer of 2013. Kosovo changed their immigration laws two weeks before we met up so I could still go, but she couldn’t anymore. She wanted to see Macedonia anyway so we decided after Serbia we’d split up.
I was back in Kosovo two years later for Dokufest, the Greatest Film Festival Ever. The theme was “migration” and in the intro video they tried to fly with cardboard wings. When some article fell through, Fisnik asked me to quickly fill the slot.
“Just your experience of DokuFest. Anything.”
“Like… an outsider’s perspective on DokuFest?”
So I wrote, “This year’s theme of migration is very poignant for me because I’m an American citizen. It’s easy for me to take it for granted that I can visit friends in Belgrade and spontaneously spend the weekend in Sarajevo.”
Was that the right thing to say to a Kosovo audience? Was I more aware or just rubbing it in their faces?
In Kosovo my best friend was Una and we compared notes on attending international high schools. The difference with her was that she couldn’t go back. My passport will probably never prevent me from visiting Japan.
Tarek’s situation was different too. Tarek is Lebanese but was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. He could talk shit about Saudi all day, but when the sun set it was still pretty much “home”. Then he became an adult and eventually lost his visa. He was born and raised there and might never go back.
Aviel is part Lebanese, born 66 kilometers from Saïda and might never get to see Lebanon. Don’t even get me started on my oppressed-by-apartheid Palestinian friends. But if I buy a second passport I can move between them all as much as I please. That one alone can make your head spin for days.
It’s a spin you can forget with drinks and dancing in Barometre or in the Sarajevo Brewery with Juliet and Amir.
“It’s a good job, but they still treat us like Bosnians, you know?”
“Where are they from?”
“Austria. That’s just how they are.”
In a weird way I sort of related to what he meant because I’d experienced the inverse. I’d had superiors who treated me like an American. “Be careful on the stairs. We don’t want anything to happen to you.”
One thing I liked a lot about Altan was his awareness of that. “Yeah, I know I get special treatment in this country because I have a British passport and a dick.”
Dicks and strong passports sure are good things to have. After Mohammad became American he went straight to the passport office, right after taking the Naturalization Oath. He was in Europe within two weeks. He saw 42 countries in five months.
“I’m American now,” he said when he passed through Sarajevo. “I eat apple pie.”
Sarajevo has its flaws, but holds a magic nonetheless. For Una the trip was a long five years coming and she couldn’t believe it when it was true.
Miloš gave her a ride:
“They’re not gonna let me in. I just know something bad is gonna happen. They’re gonna make us turn back.”
“It’s gonna be fine. They’re gonna let you in. You have everything you need.”
“They’re not gonna let me in. They never let us in. They’re gonna turn me away. Miloš, I’m not allowed to go to Bosnia.”
“Miloš, are we really in Bosnia?”
We went for coffee at Rahatlook. Same place Jonny and I kept Internet tabs on our Passport Queen, a classic love-to-hate, and trying not to vomit at her posts sure took a long time to get old. She had an American passport, an Australian passport, a passport from New Zealand, and the gall to complain. The situation wasn’t good enough for her because she was still an outsider living in the EU. She talked down to Afghan “economic migrants” – or whatever you wanted to call them – dubbing them “country-shoppers” in 2016. According to the 2016 Visa Restriction Index, Afghan passports are the worst in the world. Her three were in the top ten and she had another top-ten-er on the way.
How can a human be that ignorant and that despicable?
I sometimes felt sorry for her, but all bets were off when she commended a German law primed to punish migrants who don’t properly “integrate”.
You know what? I moved to Japan when I was twelve and I didn’t fucking integrate. I went to an American school. Most of my friends were American. I never reached fluency in Japanese. I’ve gotten the death stare from right-wing Japanese nationalists with their black vans and microphones and imperial flags, and I was afraid of them when I was a kid. They were just death staring, they’d never dare to touch me. Chinese and Korean kids must fear them way more. God knows if they ever did touch me it’d be an international incident, but when it happens in Moscow it’s just, “What a shame. That happened again.”
I hated having to say that to Kiran. “Look, I loved a lot of things about Moscow, but I can’t in good conscience tell someone who’s not white and not straight to move there. I don’t think it’s safe for you there.”
“Integrate.” “Integrate.” What the fuck does that mean? How could such a thing be measured? At what point have you done it enough? When people talk down at immigrants who don’t “integrate” I don’t just hear the racism, the nationalism. I hear, “People like you shouldn’t exist.”
When the Passport Queen got her Canadian passport she bragged about that too. “Now I can visit Canada without having to wait in the stupid foreigners’ line!”
That stupid Canadian foreigners’ line. What a hardship it must have been in her life.
But what could I say? I had silly passport problems too.
“I had to go to the embassy to get new pages in my passport.”
“Why did you need new pages?”
“I ran out of pages.”
“That’s… a problem I’ve never had.”
After Rahatlook, and before I went to sleep, I learned sentences in Bosnian.
Ja sam Dasha. Živim u Sarajevu. Koji je password za internet? 
Ivo taught me sentences too. It’s true — I’m a sucker for dark Balkan wit.
Smiješno mi je kada pišeš na našem jeziku. Potvrđuju se moje sumnje da si špijun. 
I was running out of steam by then, to be honest. I was now closer to 30 than 20 and starting to understand what they meant by “settle down”. So the sentences I learned in Arabic, those became the most important. I learned them for Rabee, for a lot of people, for someone else.
 .انا بالبيت طول النهار. تعا إذا فيك
 مرحبا ربيع. كيفك؟ عم بدرس عربي. عنجد آسفة إنّو ما حكيتك عربي ببيروت كيفك؟ إنت بأيّ دولة؟
Not taking Arabic seriously in Lebanon was one of my biggest life regrets, but there was nothing to do but move forward with it now. I could practice. After all, I had the best friends in the world. I could remember that in the ECC bar or on a balcony in Slovenia with Rok and Farinaz.
“I love you, but you’re not an American.”
“I love you too, but you are.”
So, I got my passport out, ready to blend in at the border on a bus out of Hungary or into Montenegro. When you cross like that they don’t always stamp you, which can create problems. I’ve sure as hell been an illegal alien, an economic migrant and a “country-shopper”, but no one’s ever called me those things. I held it in my hand, that little passport. At the end of it all, there’s no reason I should have it. That is hard to know.
 Actually, I’m 25% Japanese. Really. My grandmother was Okinawan.
 I work as a freelancer. I’d like to renew my visa.
 Untranslatable. Ask a Persian friend.
 Hello. Yes. No. Okay. I’m Dakota. Please give me one portion of çiğ köfte.
 I don’t speak Russian.
 I speak Russian poorly.
 Excuse me, I speak Russian poorly. I’m an English teacher. I have an interview at three o’clock. I’m looking for Tanya Vdovina’s office. Do you know where it is?
 Why do you think you speak Russian poorly? You speak well.
 I’m Dasha. I live in Sarajevo. What’s the password for the internet?
 It’s funny for me when you write in our language. Confirmed my suspicion that you’re a spy.
 I’m home all day. Come over if you can.
 Hello Rabee. How are you? I study Arabic now. I’m sorry I didn’t speak Arabic with you in Beirut. How are you? What country are you in?
Dakota is a teacher and writer currently somewhere in Europe.