The quiet desperation of embassies

Last week we went to the US Embassy in Copenhagen. My older son, Tobias needed to have his US Passport renewed and since he’s still eleven he needs both his parents to sign a document and say “yes, our child can have a US passport – and one of us is not planning to whisk him away to places unknown.” Which would also be difficult to do since Søren and I have Danish passports – and I since I gave up my Indian citizenship, I really have nowhere to go but stay here.

We had an appointment at the embassy and we got there on time – went through security, which was more rigorous than what we face at airports and then we were ushered into a smallish room with the ubiquitous glass windows. Since Tobias is a US citizen we went straight to window 5 with no waiting time, while in the room sat many, many people waiting for their visas.

Almost immediately I could feel this sense of foreboding. I felt people were rude, hostile – and that this whole process was terrible. I complained about how rude the security people were, how rude the woman at window 5 was (she was rude) and I didn’t even have anything nice to say about the Counselor who made pleasant chit chat as we signed on the documents we had to sign on.

By the time we got our iPhones back at security I was seething.

It had taken exactly 20 minutes from security back to security – but I was going on as if we had waited for hours and hours without food and drink and access to a toilet.

Obviously it was an overreaction.  Søren and Tobias were confused but decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valor and pretended that my overreaction was not off the deep end at all.

After we dropped Tobias off at school and started to drive home I finally figured it out. Embassies just put me in a bad place.

F1 Visa – USA

Go back 18 years. I was twenty years old, ready to graduate from engineering school. I had taken my TOEFL and GRE and wanted very much to go to the United States of America to do my master’s degree in…well anything. I wanted out of India. Anyone who has gone through the process of getting an F1 visa (a student visa) knows how it feels to stand in line for hours and then face someone from across a glass window – someone who doesn’t know that you need to get out of India because you’re worried that you just might have to concede the battle to arranged marriage; or that what you want out of life (to become a journalist/writer) is not going to happen in India where you just had to be an engineer or a doctor.

The first time I went to the US Embassy in Madras (now Chennai) they rejected my visa. They put a stamp on my passport saying they had rejected my visa. You got only two tries – and then the third time you had to do it via mail and your chances were slim. I was shattered. Completely broken. I couldn’t believe that all my dreams of going to the US were gone.

Thankfully, my father wasn’t about to let one reject come in the way – he sorted my papers out and we went again – again the long wait – and can you even imagine the pressure?

Long story short – I got my visa and I came to the US and it was everything I had hoped (and some more) than I thought it would be.

Residency Permit – Denmark

Ten years after that I found myself in Denmark – where they are xenophobic and have made it all but impossible for Danes to marry foreigners and live in Denmark.

This was when I was trying to get my residency permit renewed. Usually my husband came with me when I had to go to the Integration Ministry office – but this time I had gone alone. My permit was under processing, which meant that to travel during the 90 days of processing time I needed an old-fashioned visa. I had to travel for work so I had no choice but to go down there.

It took three hours. And as I sat there I could feel the desperation, that quiet desperation I had felt on the street of Madras, standing in line outside the US Embassy. Babies were crying, people were talking in hushed voices, everyone was hoping…praying that they could stay in Denmark or get an extension or be allowed to travel out and come back in.

By the time it was my turn I was near hysterical.

The woman was very polite, smiling, happily stamped my passport. It took less than five minutes but by the time I was in the car calling my husband, I was sobbing. I wasn’t going back there alone again.

Citizenship – Danish

I’m a fairly confident woman. I don’t scare easy. But for years while we lived in Denmark when I would travel out for work I was scared that they would say I couldn’t go into Denmark, not with my Indian passport, regardless of my residency permit. It was irrational but it was there, all the time and passport control gave me that same sense of quiet desperation as embassies did…still do.

Finally, I threw in the gauntlet and applied for Danish citizenship. It was a difficult decision in some ways and fairly easy in others. If anyone asks me where I’m from – I will always say India. I will never say I’m a Danish citizen unless someone asks that question. On the other hand I feel more connected to Denmark, more engaged in politics because this is now my country too. But the best thing about having a Danish passport? I love flashing the passport at passport control, knowing that they can’t stop me from coming back in and hugging my babies at home.