Commentary

Do I let a Filipino passport define me?

Or, why do I always brace for bad experience
when handing it over at immigration?

“Yang passport mo is worse than Tonga.”

This witticism was courtesy of the Filipino immigration officer at the booth in LAX. He took his time opening each page of my dog-eared, held-together-with-a-rubber-band passport—make that two passports, stapled unceremoniously together because there were active visas in the expired one. Then he handed it back to me with satisfaction, pleased that he didn’t own such a worthless document.

You soon discover once you start traveling that a Filipino passport is not easy.

You need visas to almost every country. You need gobs of time to apply for these visas. You need to jump through hoops for these precious stamps (I’m looking at you, Czech Republic, where the visa application form has to be printed in color.)

Once you get the visa, fly and land, you can expect to be questioned longer upon arrival, a fact well known by savvy travelers who avoid the lines where we are.

“Sorry but I try not to stand behind a Filipino in immigration,” blurted out one work colleague from the UK while we were in the airport in Bangkok. “I know it’ll take forever.”

The Henley Passport Index ranks passports according to the number of countries their citizens can travel to visa-free. Japan is ranked number one; their citizens can travel visa-free to 191 destinations. Afghanistan is at the very bottom at 110.

The Philippines is ranked 77th with Cape Verde and the Dominican Republic. Tonga is in 44th place, so that LAX officer was on the money.

Beyond entry to countries, passports also dictate what you can do for a living when residing abroad. Filipino passport holders, more often than not, require work sponsorship, a considerable expense for a company. Not for us are the pleasures of working remotely from Aruba as we wait for herd immunity.

Over the years, I’ve tried to examine the complex feelings that bubbled to the surface whenever I held my passport. Why is it always a Sisyphean task to enter any country? Why do I always brace for a bad experience when I’m handing it over at immigration? Why do I feel conflicted about it?

The question that I reflected on the most was: Did my passport define me? It didn’t seem to matter that I’ve held senior positions in a global company, led a team of marketers from Paris to Perth, or flew business class internationally. By dearth of my passport, I was lumped with “all the TNTs, domestic helpers, construction workers and bar girls the Philippines is known for,” said a caustic co-worker who also held one, much to her dismay.

Her frustration reached peak levels when the company held a conference in Cebu. Only Philippine passport holders had to pay travel tax upon exit. She asked me to stay behind with her to pay our taxes so the rest of the group wouldn’t see. She didn’t want them to be reminded that we lived in the parallel universe of Shitty Passport World.

The Filipino security guard looked at her with a tinge of regret. ‘Ayaw mo na sa ‘tin?’

Months later, when my co-worker successfully applied for a Singaporean passport, the Filipino security guard in the government office looked at her with a tinge of regret. “Ayaw mo na sa ‘tin?” (You don’t want our country any longer?) he asked. His question bothered her for years.

It took time to realize that Filipinos were not alone in their passport woes. On a company conference to Egypt, an Indian colleague was relieved to find out that I, too, had to get a visa. It was like a dam had burst. “Egypt isn’t the UK,” he spat out. “I don’t even want to go there, much less overstay.”

A Colombian friend laughed when I talked about how my passport automatically put me on the terrorist list. “Have you seen Colombians entering Miami?” he asked. “Every orifice is examined.”

Hearing all this was reassuring (except for the orifice part) but it was still a relief to get a US passport in 2013. Finally, I could enter and exit pretty much any country with impunity. It’s a sleek passport that, apart from three stamps, has remarkably blank pages.

My old Filipino passports, which I have kept, are the opposite. They’re a raucous patchwork of colorful immigration stamps and visa labels that tell a story of my journeys across the world. Some countries had been tougher to get into than others, which made the trips even more satisfying. No matter how much their systems were designed to keep me out, I still got in.

(As an aside, some of those visa labels are downright gorgeous, harking back to a time when stamps were an art form. The image above shows an old passport of mine with the stamp of the Egyptian consulate on the right page. You can find other passport stamps in this Wikipedia gallery.)

Passports, these flimsy little books, assign a country to you. And countries are, arguably, a construct. Watch this brilliant TED Talk by Taiye Selasi, who parses what constitutes identity. “History was real, cultures were real, countries were invented,” she says. In short, there’s so much more to a person than the passport one holds.

Fortunately, there are many who won’t let the limiting nature of a worse-than-Tonga passport interfere with their exploration of the world. One Filipina who had just gotten hers had her strategy all mapped out. “Hong Kong muna. Tapos Macau. Tapos Bangkok.”

Good on her. With an attitude like that, she’s going places.

About author

Articles

She started writing in 1988 for the Manila Chronicle. Before moving to Hong Kong in 1993, she was the lifestyle and travel editor for the Inquirer. She has lived in Hong Kong, Chicago and Dallas and conducted business all over the world. A marketer for many years, she now lives outside Seattle, Washington where she grows dahlias and feeds hummingbirds.

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