“IT’S STANDARD PROCEDURE. She’s from a third-world country.”
My partner was told this when he called to file a complaint about what happened to me.
After three years in Japan’s JET Program, and a lifetime of pining to see the world, I had enough money saved up to live my dream. I decided to start in Europe, where my partner lives. I submitted the detailed financial records, travel insurance certificate, letter of invitation, letter of intent, and other documents required for a Schengen visa. I got the visa and was ecstatic. I based myself in Helsinki to explore the continent.
And then this happened. I was returning to Finland from a one-day ferry excursion to St. Petersburg. The trip was great; the immigration checkpoints, not so much. But I’m used to that. Immigration officials have an astounding lack of geographical knowledge, in my experience. Some have questioned whether a country called Trinidad and Tobago — where I’m from — actually exists. An officer once pulled out his smartphone and Googled it to make sure.
There are the myriad personal questions that usually ensure I’m the last person in line to clear immigration. Still, the ache of muscles required for fake-smiling, while I feel my dignity being slowly eroded, is a small price to pay to sate my inconvenient urge to walk the earth. These are all people following guidelines, having good and bad days, and doing their jobs. This I understand.
Europe, however, and Finland in particular, has introduced a whole other level of unconcealed contempt. Every time I enter, I have to walk with a portfolio of documents and convince someone I’m just a regular traveler, I have enough money to support myself, I don’t engage in sex work, and I won’t try to live here illegally. My friends, who possess more fortunate nationalities, breeze through and wait for me at customs. I have come to be used to this too. I chose this.
But what I went through on my return from St. Petersburg I can’t get used to. After taking longer than usual with my passport, the immigration officer called another to come and take a look. I was questioned in turn by both of them. Then those awful words:
“Please come this way.”
I broke down. I asked why. People stared. They took me into a back room and sent a woman in to deal with me. I requested a phone call to let someone know I was being detained. I was denied. I couldn’t stop sobbing. “Cut the bullshit,” she said. I wasn’t told why I was being detained. She kept asking me vague questions about my life. Made me write down information about my partner. My hands were shaking. The more I asked why they were doing this, the louder she got. When I asked again if I could make a phone call, she responded, “Look, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Which do you want?”
That’s when I knew I was helpless. I stopped asking questions and did everything she asked. I stopped crying and stared at the floor. I went into survival mode. I heard her in another room mocking my voice. I heard the others laughing. She took my credit card away for inspection, along with my passport. Her face had the look of someone who desperately wanted to spit.
When she let me out of the room, I didn’t look at her. I wanted to ask for her name but I was scared she would retaliate. I chose freedom instead. Twenty minutes had passed but it seemed like much longer. I wished I could make her feel what it’s like to be so powerless. Perhaps, though, she already knew this feeling in some way, and was exorcising it by inflicting the same on others. When I tried to exit the ferry terminal, I got detained yet again by customs. I had my passport seized. I was too numb to feel anything and answered their questions mechanically. They let me go eventually.
My partner was livid when I told him and immediately started making phone calls. He felt the ire of someone who has no expectation of being treated this way, not in a country as progressive as his. As it turns out, this is standard procedure because I’m from a third-world country. This is what they said. He asked if it was standard for them to take someone who had all their papers in order into a back room, to break them down to tears. They said it happens. There is nothing that can be done and it will probably happen again.
I come from a country where some people are cut off from basic resources in a way unheard of in Finland. I also come from a country where some people enjoy a quality of life and deep happiness that many Finns may never be able to attain. Some of us resign ourselves to the rat race because nothing outside of that seems safe. And some of us go after our dreams, perhaps even if those dreams lie beyond the tiny patch of earth where we happened to be born.
Finns visit countries like mine all the time, soak up the sun that’s so scarce back home, and enjoy the intoxication of big spending power. That is the natural order of things. When people like me journey to more developed shores, purely for pleasure, there’s something inherently suspicious about that. This is how the world is.
My friend said to me, in the aftermath of this, “We are never victims, no matter what the circumstances.” She’s right. That’s not my role. I’m fortunate enough to be living my purpose and, perhaps all the more because of where I’ve come from, I am grateful for my mobility every single day. I must keep moving. Those who heed the nomadic calling understand this.
I write this not for sympathy, but to increase understanding. I also write it for those who are like me, those from places looked down on by the developed world. I’ve met so many of you. You take it for granted that it’s as much your right to wander this world as anyone else, in spite of the extra paperwork. And it is. Just know that some places will treat you like less of a human being and give you extra hoops to jump through. That is their standard procedure.