Traveling as an Indian-Born Confused Desi

Where are you from?
Where do you live?
What do you do?

These three questions have come up innumerable times in the past few months – and whether during introductory conversations with fellow backpackers or while filling out arrival and departure immigration cards at airports, these basic queries always manage to leave me (and the inquirer) stumped.

Normally, being confused as a young adult is not a big deal – and the above questions almost always make for a good conversation starter. But what happens when you need to apply for a visa to travel to a country and cannot answer the most basic questions about yourself?

The visa application process, for you lucky ones that don’t know, involves showing proof that you are not trying to migrate to the country you are trying to visit. The more proof you show, the more likely you are to get approved. Clear, confident answers on where you are from, where you live, where you work, how much you earn and how long you plan to travel for, all strengthen your case.

Ten days ago, I went to the Singapore consulate in Hong Kong to apply for a tourist visa to Singapore. Flights were cheap and I thought, why not? My trip couldn’t be completely spontaneous though – as I quickly found out that I needed a visa to visit Singapore (damn that Indian passport!). But the application seemed simple so I assembled my travel booking and other necessary paperwork, and headed to the Singapore consulate.

This is how my conversation with the lady at the visa application desk went:

Lady: Are you a Hong Kong resident or student here?
Me: No, neither – I’m just a tourist.
Lady: Oh, well then I’m very sorry, you cannot apply for a visa from here. You are Indian?
Me: Yes.
Lady: Well you should’ve applied for your Singapore visa from India then before coming..
Me: But I’m not coming from India – I’m coming from the US, where I was living and working for six years
Lady: Oh, so you are Indian but you live in the US?
Me: Um, well I used to…but I left my job to travel for a year.
Lady: So where do you live now?
Me: After leaving the US, I’ve just been traveling and plan to continue for the next year so I don’t have a fixed place I live at…But my permanent address is in India.
Lady: Hm. So your parents? They live in India or in the US?
Me: Actually, they live in Nigeria…
Lady (frazzled at this point): So where is your home? Where will you go after you finish traveling?
Me (also frazzled at this point): Um..?#*$&!

Yes…My case is confusing and complicated. Unemployed, resident of no country, holder of an Indian passport issued in Ghana, college-educated in the US, with parents that currently live in Nigeria.

In the end, the lady made me write a letter laying out the exact details of my life – from birth till present – so she could better understand me. I was still lucky to have someone who cared enough to want to know…and somehow, miraculously, in the end I was granted the visa.

But despite the comedy of it all, I do have to say it’s always frustrating to have to go through this process. Most other travelers don’t need to have a reason to visit a country – they don’t need to make travel bookings, hotel reservations, fill out paperwork or line up to explain why they want to travel…they just show up and get a stamp. It’s sad, but each time, this visa process serves as a tragic reminder to me…it gently reinforces that though I may socialize with Europeans, North Americans and Australians, though I may have just as good of an education, the same work and life experiences, share the same dreams, have parents that are just as supportive of gap years and traveling…just by virtue of the country I was born in and the citizenship I ended up with, I simply do not have the same level of freedom or opportunity…and even if I do, it will usually not come as easily…and will almost always require extra effort from my end.

I have to admit, it gets to me…and it’s a little disheartening. But I guess we can’t always have things work the way we want them to. These are the times I have to remind myself to be grateful for what I do have. I have to remind myself that despite it all, I am young and still able to indulge in a life of travel. Yes, the passport and muddled life story can be a problem, but while I have limitations in areas others don’t, the reverse holds too. None of us are granted the perfect life – we just have to make the most of it. In the end, I have to remember to put things into perspective and have the right outlook. 🙂

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