Photo: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

How Having Multiple Passports Changed How I See the World

by Steve McCabe Dec 1, 2014

IT TOOK ME EIGHT YEARS of living in America. New Zealand only took five. In Japan I never bothered. In Britain it just happened, and in Ireland, well, my dad helped out.

I’m British — English by birth, northern by the grace of God, my national identity is a complex thing. My passport –no longer the magnificent navy-blue thing with the hard covers and the cutouts on the front for the name and the passport number, no longer the unmistakable British passport, although it still carries the demand that “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance” — calls me a British citizen, to distinguish me from British subjects, British nationals (overseas), and Lord knows how many subtle gradations of Britishness and Johnny Foreigner-ness. So I suppose that’s who I am. Certainly that’s what I sound like; as soon as I open my mouth and the Coronation Street vowels tumble out, I couldn’t possibly be from anywhere else.

But I’m also Irish, apparently. I wasn’t born there; I’ve visited the island maybe three or four times, and not at all in the last thirty-five years. But my father was born in Dublin, and that’s good enough for the Irish — they claim me as their own. Being British, I don’t usually have much use for an Irish passport, but sometimes options are useful. Ten years ago, as troops from the UK, among others, were invading and then occupying Afghanistan, I was approached about the possibility of going to Kabul for six months to train air-traffic controllers. I didn’t go, but as long as it was a possibility, I didn’t want to be British. Suddenly being Irish was an altogether more attractive proposition, and I made sure my Irish papers were in order. I still have an Irish passport, which I occasionally use for travel if I’m going somewhere the British aren’t terribly well-loved thanks to some colonial shenanigans or other — which is, now I come to think of it, a rather large fraction of the planet.

I was British while I lived in Japan. I could, by the time I left, have applied for Japanese citizenship, but there seemed little point. Foreigners — gaijin — carry alien registration cards with them at all times; woe betide any gaijin not carrying their gaijin card if the police are in a harass-a-foreigner mood, but if I simply tried telling PC Hashimoto that I’m as Japanese as he is, he’ll want to see paperwork, so I might as well carry a gaijin card with me. They’re a lot more convenient than a passport. I would also have had to change my name. I did pick one out — 北山英二, or Kitayama Eiji. Kitayama — the kanji, meaning “northern mountain,” would make a great surname for me, and Eiji, written with characters that mean “England” and “two” would suit a second-son Englishman. But then I realised I’d have to give up my British citizenship, and this just felt like a step too far. There is, I realised later, a workaround, but by the time I found out, it was too late. I’d moved to America.

I applied for my green card almost as soon as I arrived in Florida. My wife’s American, so I should, I thought, have no problems getting legalised. It took four years — four years of lost paperwork, letters to senators and congressmen, endless trips to the INS office in Tampa, and many hundreds of dollars. Finally I got my green card — it was pink. But I was a legal permanent resident, and three years later I filled in the forms to become an American. More INS visits — they were the US Citizenship and Immigration Service by the time I was naturalising — including yet another fingerprinting. Why, I asked, did they need my fingerprints yet again? “The last set have expired.”

How — please, some explain to me, please — in the name of all that’s holy do fingerprints expire? There must be, I pointed out, prisoners jailed on pretty unsafe convictions across the nation if fingerprints expire; the fingerprint technician glanced up from the fingerprinting machine for precisely the length of time required to convey how very little he cared. I was called again to the Tampa field office, asked a handful of American history questions (not a problem; I was teaching eighth-grade American history at the time, and one of the great things about American history is it’s really easy to learn — there’s so very little of it), and told that I’d be getting an invitation to a naturalisation ceremony.

By the time I Americanised, I was already applying for New Zealand residence. I never felt American, even though I have the papers to prove that I am one. It’s more a flag of convenience than a statement of identity — while my British passport was in London getting a residence visa stamped in it, my American passport was getting me into New Zealand with a work permit. But I’ve never felt American. It’s not who I am, not part of my identity.

New Zealand, on the other hand, feels like home. I went to my citizenship ceremony in Papakura, in south Auckland, last week, with my wife and daughter, and the three of us became, officially, Kiwis. And this time I do feel like a New Zealander. I’ll have my fourth passport by the end of next week, and my national identity is ever more complexified.

It’s not just for the novelty value, of course. My daughter, with her matching clutch of passports, has the right, now, to live in the USA, western Europe, New Zealand and Australia. She gets to choose — she has options. My wife, too, even though she’s not British, can move there with me if we choose, because she acquired, after three years of marriage to me — it must be some sort of Celtic consolation prize — Irish citizenship; she, too, can live anywhere in Western Europe, now that she has a European Union passport.

Keeping them all up to date isn’t cheap, and keeping track of who I am is sometimes tricky — if I visit England, I’ll need to take my British passport to get into the UK, but I’ll need to take my black-and-silver Kiwi passport for when I land in Auckland. And if there might be a side trip to Ireland while I’m there, then will I need my Irish passport, just in case?

Claiming I’m a “citizen of the world” sounds too hippy; claiming to be a “dual national” doesn’t quite do me justice; I can’t quite bring myself to use the phrase “quadruple national.” I’ll invoke whichever nationality I find expedient, whichever citizenship is convenient. But, deep down inside, I think I’m English. Yes, I think I am.

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