On my recent trip to Hong Kong as part of my HSBC tour, one of my stops was Shanghai. It was an absolute nightmare getting to Shanghai in the first place, but what I experienced at Pudong Airport made me come face to face with my own privilege. Namely, the privilege I get from my British passport.
The British passport is ranked as #1 in the world, in terms of how many countries you can enter visa free. The ease with which citizens can travel around the globe is what makes it such a desirable passport. It is because of this easiness that it is easy to forget how tough it is for some people that do not have this passport.
Even though I have lived in London nearly all of my life, I haven’t always been a British citizen. I remember school trips that went to France or Spain that I had to miss out on, as I didn’t have a British passport. At this time, I didn’t actually have any passport, neither British nor Nigerian. My family and I were trying to get up papers together to apply for citizenship, and as soon as we were granted the little red book, I booked my first trip. When I was 18, I travelled to Germany, and ever since then I haven’t looked back. Everything from then on, had been smooth sailing.
When I went to China, my experience at immigration control was unlike any I’d ever had before. Usually whenever I’m at border control and hand over my passport, the officer will look down at my passport, look back at me and let me through. However, during my time at Pudong border control, I was there for what felt like an age. But it was probably closer to 15/20 minutes. The officer looked down at my passport, back to me, down at my passport, and back at me at least 10 times. I felt like I was under scrutiny, I was being looked at under a very intense magnifying glass. The same glass many have had to get used to for flying with their passport or for flying looking a certain way.
This was the first time that I was actually worried that I might not be able to get to my destination. After he put down my passport, I filled in a little slip that detailed my destination in China, how long I was staying for and the reason for my visit. Thankfully, after what felt like an eon I was able to pass through. I had informed the officer and the wheelchair assistance guy that I would be meeting up with a friend of mine who would escort me out of the airport. Whenever I say this, I’m not worried even if my friend is late, as I know that there was never any problem for me to get through in the first place. However, after we had passed through the arrivals gate and I looked around and I couldn’t see my friend, I started to get nervous.
Might the wheelchair assistance not believe that my friend was actually coming? Would he think that I was in Shanghai for anything other than leisure? I started to get nervous and fidget around in my seat. While I knew that I wasn’t up to any good, because of the fact that I felt scrutinised at immigration I was moving around as though I was guilty. Even though my friend was only 5 minutes late, it felt a lot longer as I was afraid that they might try and take me back. I’ve travelled to many countries, far and wide, all thanks to that red book. Whenever I get through to immigration, there was never any worry in my mind. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation where I thought I might not get through or I might be sent back home.
The British passport had given me a confidence and an assurance that I would be welcomed. I could travel freely to nearly all nations around the world. I would either not require a visa, or if I did need a visa I could apply for one upon arrival. Even if I needed to have a visa in advance, there was not even a thought in my mind that I would be denied entrance. I had taken my passport privilege for granted for so long, until Shanghai gave me a wakeup call.
For so many people around the world, this is simply not the case. They have to apply months in advance in order to maybe get a visa. Pay a lot of money, and that does not necessarily guarantee them entrance to their destination. This really opened up my eyes to the tough time that a lot of people have at entry points. Even if they had done everything right, made sure they had enough money, medical insurance and everything, they could still be denied.
For others, sometimes the British passport isn’t even enough. The way their skin looks, the fact that their name sounds Muslim [even though they might not be] is seen as enough justification to keep them out. In a recent news article, a Muslim family from the UK that had already been granted a visa to travel to the US to Disneyland were not allowed to board the plane. While no official reason given, it must be noted that the family looks Muslim. The father has got tan skin and has a large beard, and the mother wears a headscarf. These are all visual indicators of one’s Islamic faith, and we know how some people feel about Muslims.
While I have always been grateful for being able to travel as easily as I do, I am glad that I got this little reminder from China. It just makes me appreciate every trip, every journey that little bit more. As some people are not quite so lucky…
Which passport[s] do you guys hold? Do you have a hard time getting around the world? Any stories you’d care to share?