I am living in Boston with my American fiancée when we decide to take a vacation in the UK. Standing in the customs queue at a London airport, we compare passports. Hers is sleek and clean, whereas my Indian passport resembles a small, tattered Bible. My photograph is pasted in, and spelling mistakes are corrected in Wite-Out.
My passport tells the story of my immigrant life: my student and work visas; all the entry and exit stamps as I traveled between India and the United States. Soon my fiancée and I will be married, and I’ll have a brand-new U.S. passport in which to write the next chapter of my life.
When we reach the British immigration official, she gives my fiancée’s passport a quick look and is done. Then she fingers the worn cardboard cover of mine, sighs, and says, “Would you please step this way for an immigration check.”
The official gestures to a wooden bench where an old Sikh man in a saffron turban and a huddled Bangladeshi family sit.
I’m not like them, I want to say to the official. I live in Boston. But all the official sees is a brown face and an Indian passport. My fiancée says she will sit with me. The official shrugs.
Sitting on the hard wooden bench, I watch each white person clear immigration in seconds and am filled with hopelessness; the British, who ruled my country for decades and taught me the English that I speak, have always had the power to keep me out of their country.
Next to me the old Sikh man is crying silently. He smells of wood smoke and tobacco and reminds me of an uncle. The Bangladeshi family looks like an obscure branch of my own. A wave of solidarity washes through me, and I go from hopelessness to calm resignation. It feels right somehow to be sitting with these people. I belong here.
My fiancée tugs at my sleeve. The official is waving my passport at me. “I knew everything would be OK,” my fiancée says, smiling a big, confident, American smile.
But I am angry. I don’t want to enter the UK anymore. Let them keep their damn country. My place is here, with my people. I could sit on this bench all day with them.
But of course I don’t. My fiancée is already walking away. I follow her and collect my passport, with its red entry stamp. At the exit doors I glance back at the bench and see the Bangladeshi family, glassy-eyed with fear, and the old Sikh man, still crying.
Reprinted from The Sun (Jan. 2010), which for more than 30 years has used personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs “to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” www.thesunmagazine.org