Giving up my little red truck and changing my car personality was hard, and now I’m dealing with switching to a new passport. More literally than with my truck, that passport defines my identity, at least in the computers of national governments around the globe.
In early April 2001, a pickpocket took my wallet while I was waiting for a city bus in Kunming, China. I lost my passport, two U.S. bank cards, my Bank of China deposit book, a full card worth of pre-paid milk cartons from my corner store, and about $7 worth of Chinese currency. One very disappointed petty thief went home that evening to find such a small amount of cash in my wallet, I’m sure. The cards were useless to him, and I quickly notified the Chinese bank to put a hold on my local account.
The greatest trouble, of course, came from the stolen passport. I had to file numerous police reports in Kunming, post a notice in the local paper (I love Chinese bureaucracy, where I have to pay for a public announcement that I’m the victim of a crime), fly to Sichuan to the American consulate, and apply for a new passport. This was five months before U.S. travel security was forever tightened, and I was given a very unofficial looking passport with handwritten information in the front and my oh-so-very-not-digital photo glued to the third page. It was valid for ten years, though, so I continued to travel with it as long as I could, to save myself the time, energy, and money of getting a new digital passport book. Passports are expensive, darn it—I paid for ten years, I want my ten years.
The layout of the pages in that special passport of mine is unlike the standard issue and caused wrinkled brows and phone calls to supervisors just about every time I went through immigration at an airport or border crossing (and if you’ve read my blogs from China, you’ll know this was often). Towards the end of my time in Asia, the official seal on the front cover was completely worn off, and I’d have to announce my U.S. citizenship to the officers as I went through the line, rather than just hand them an easily identifiable blue passport with gold embossed eagle. Officials in Asia would repeatedly tell me, “You should get a new passport, this one’s too old.” But no U.S. official ever said a word about it, so I figured that if my own country doesn’t have a problem with it, I’m not going to worry about the guy sitting in a hut on the border of Thailand and Laos.
But when I came back home this spring, I had no excuse for not sending it in. I had plenty of time to wait the four to six weeks for it to be processed and returned, and I wouldn’t lose a current Chinese visa by getting a new book. It was time to advance to the digital passport age.
The new passport is just one more tangible way that my identity is being redefined at this point in my life—and not just because in the new photo I have long curly hair instead of the short spiky cut I wore during my student days in Kunming. A well-used, nine-year-old passport carries with it documentation of nine years of trips. Nine years of memories. Nine years of experience. Twice I had a new set of pages added to that passport because I’d run out of space for visas—I have to admit, my pride is just the tiniest bit pricked by trading in that thick book for a thin one. When you’re standing in an immigration line in Asia with a passport as worn and fat as mine, everyone around you knows that you’re no inexperienced traveler. You’ve been around a while. You’ve been in and out of this country and others, who knows how many all together. Now I’ll be back to that same flimsy, empty document I had when I started.
When that first passport was stolen in 2001, I only lost a couple of Chinese and Indian visas. This time I’m losing fourteen Chinese student, tourist, and employment visas. Seven entries to Laos for visa runs and vacation. Innumerable stamps into Thailand, from four ports of entry. Stamps for Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Korea. Full pages for Vietnam and Myanmar. Getting this new one could easily seem like trading in my old life of travel for a blank one of no stamps, no history, no stories of hassles and hang-ups represented by the document that I carry. I’m trying to choose instead to look at the possibilities, the newness and cleanness of this passport, and the future journey its stamps will record.