The classroom looks like a small library and smells of ancient wood. The writing prompt is to describe your life in six objects. The students write for fifteen minutes and then read and describe their objects, relate them to their writing projects before moving on with the lesson. One person mentions one object that stays with me, I have always been fascinated by its particular value for different people: a passport.
After the class, I google the word passport: it comes from 15th Century French and it means passing a seaport. In today’s world it can also mean possibilities: escape war or persecution, step out of your comfort zone, see the rest of the world. I still remember the list of countries I had in mind when I got my first passport at 15: Italy, France, Japan, India. I just made it to Florida, but it was an adventure all the same (I grew up in South America).
A passport means freedom to travel abroad, but in some cases it labels you. I just read an article explaining that the Japanese passport is the most powerful in the world. It means that Japanese people travel with less restriction. They rarely need visas. This article reminded me of a “good” versus “bad” passport situation many years ago in Switzerland (by the way, the same article in a British newspaper informed me that Switzerland is one of the most difficult places in the world to grant you citizenship, the equivalent of a Swiss passport). I was traveling with my respectable and properly dressed mom, who was in her 60’s at the time. We were crossing the border from France to Switzerland and we had to pass customs before boarding a train. We were beside a young Japanese man in his 20’s; his clothes were dirty and wrinkled, probably from a long trip. He carried an old backpack, a guitar and a Japanese passport. The police looked at his document for one second and let him in. With us, Brazilians, it was another story: my mom was shocked with the number of questions they asked her. They made us open our luggage and explain in details what we were doing in Europe. My poor mother, not used to cross borders in a regular basis, couldn’t understand why border police may label us by our passports and treat one national differently from the other. People that come from countries that export illegal immigrants to many parts of the world can confirm it in a wink.
I grew up in Brazil, amidst a brutal dictatorship that tortured and killed people that were against the regime. Some of them only could escape death or jail because they had dual citizenship. The second passport set them free to wash dishes in Rome or clean bathrooms in Tokyo, but at least they were alive. The same happened – and still happens a lot – in so many other places where people are oppressed. Some countries don’t protect or treat well their own citizens, the very same people that navigate their rivers, cultivate their soil, speak and pass along their language and bear children for the future. A passport might do the magic trick of taking these human beans to other soils, seas and rivers. Their children may grow up speaking a different language, all citizens of the same world that we don’t stop mistreating.