This post and the title was inspired by a combination of my recent readings of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and my accumulated travel experiences over the years. In her original article, she talked about her friend’s experience of traveling while brown; the expectations and stereotypical bias he faced on his journeys. Mine is different but I can relate to the worries that come with the territory of being the minority traveler.
First, let’s start with being a Burmese/Myanmar passport holder. Myanmar passports are problematic for two reasons. One, we need visas for most countries, sometimes a detailed plan for the point of entry and departure, and whether we have enough money in our bank accounts. Second, I’ve been unlucky with the surname problem. We don’t have surnames in Myanmar and when I break down the three syllables of my name into a first name and a surname, sometimes it baffles the airline people who are just doing their jobs. On my recent trip to Taiwan, my whole team had already gotten through but I was left behind for two hours because my non-existent surname caused a major problem. We, the Burmese, do not have surnames (most of us anyway). Also have you ever been given a piece of document that says your name on the ticket and the name in your passport are in incorrect orders but that you are allowed to board the plane but you understand you might not be allowed to return back to the country? I have been given that document twice!! Awesome way to begin any journey really. Sometimes it makes me wonder if they have never met Burmese people who travelled to these countries before because they do you know. We, Burmese, do travel. I think the part that sends panic down my spine is when the ticket counter people start calling embassies to check if Burmese people are indeed allowed to travel to some countries without acquiring visas. Every time I apply for the US visa, I have to pay extra and I also never get more than one entry or six -months visa. Other nationalities might get longer visas but not moi. I have no intention of overstaying or remaining illegal in any country other than the one I am allowed to legally reside and work but my passport says otherwise to every big nation out there.
The next thing is travelling while Burmese gives me anxiety attacks and makes me want to almost run out of the airport. What if, despite having a proper visa, the country won’t let me in because I’m from Burma? What if, despite being allowed to enter a country without a visa, there was a war while I was on the plane and my country is suddenly blacklisted and I get stuck in the airport like Tom Hanks’ character from The Terminal? What if for some unexplainable reason, I have drugs (I don’t even drink alcohol, let alone do drugs – the most drug I have taken is ibuprofen to survive my cramps) in my bag and I get thrown in jail and my country won’t do anything about it because my country do not care about its own citizens? What if they say my passport is not valid because it cannot be read by any machine (it sometimes does not get through the swipe-y things)? This is just a running narrative of my thoughts every single time I am at any airport. Overall, I just have this illogical fear that my Burmese passport will somehow get me into trouble for just being it. My only solace has been that I have not been in any kind of nightmare scenario I have imagined yet and I hope they won’t ever happen.
The last thing is taking spontaneous trips – forget them! You can’t be spontaneous with a Burmese passport. You can’t travel around the world for six months or a year with a Burmese passport. Without a job, without property ownerships and without a significant amount of money in your bank account, forget thinking of traveling around the world for a year. It is impossible unless you’re the richest person in Burma with your own private jet. For us regular folks, it is all about planning and more planning.
So if you can travel around with your passport with minimum planning and jump from one country to another without having to worry about visas, be super grateful because I would love to be in your shoes!! If you’re in the same boat as me, I feel your pain and I’m sending you hugs but be grateful anyway because to be able to travel is a privilege!