Monday, September 11, 2006

Who am I?

In my preparations for travel to Viet Nam last year, I made multiple copies of my passport details page, asked a workmate to certify the copies and then placed the copies in a variety of places – my 'personal items' drawer at work, in my filing cabinet at home, in my sister's filing cabinet at her home. I was fearful of losing my passport. Visions of me at the Australian Embassy in Ha Noi, attempting to persuade a bureaucrat of my identity and unable to do so drove me to this neurotic over-planning.

I have little proof of who I am. My father keeps a tatty piece of paper that was our travel visa to Australia. It has a yellowing photo of me as a girl aged about two, squirming on a chair. There are similar photos of a sister and brother, squirming on the same or a similar high-backed plastic chair. My mother is also on this flimsy piece of paper, younger and more worried looking, with a deceptively smooth brow and glossy black hair that will be shaved off as soon as she reaches Australia. My father is on a different piece of paper, with two other sisters and an uncle – a pretend brother. These slips of paper were kept by Ba with a pile of important papers inside an envelope stashed under his mattress, and it was only about a decade ago that one of my siblings bought him a folder, with plastic sleeves in which to place and hopefully preserve the documentary evidence of our existence.

These flimsy bits of paper were pulled out at intervals whenever we needed to 'prove' our idenity: opening bank accounts, enrolling in school, getting a job, renting a house. The fold lines are deep, and little rips creep along where we have not been careful enough.

I do not know if, in Viet Nam, we had identification papers. I do not know if these were lost. Whenever I hear or read about all these terrible persons arriving on Our Shores (not on Our Terms) without the correct documentation, I think: That's how we came – with nothing to evince who we were.

I accumulated identification evidence around me as I grew. When I was 7 or 8, my parents became 'naturalised', taking the citizenship oath that their English language classes had taught them. I am a mere name on the back of my mother's certificate – and this is all the evidence of my citizenship, my nationality. When I opened a bank account at age 11, it was my first independent evidence of me, unconnected to my family. Then, age 16, I got social security documents and my driving learner's licence, followed rapidly by my driver's licence. Soon after, I applied for a passport and out came the tattered, yellow travel visa. The only proof of my date of birth. I took copies of the visa and my mother's citizenship certificate, got them certified by a Justice of the Peace at a bank and have them still, stored away in my own safe places.

I did not apply for a passport because I had overseas travel plans. I wanted more proof that I was myself, but especially that I was Australian. Before I went to Viet Nam, I would pull out the passport and check its expiry date often – to ensure that I would renew it without trouble when the time neared.

Viet Nam was my first trip overseas and out of Australia. The first visa in my Australian passport, although Thailand are the first stamps (we flew Thai Airways). When I told work, making light of my very real fears, about my concerns that I would be in Viet Nam, passport lost and having difficulty convincing the Australian embassy that I was indeed an Australian citizen, one of my bosses earnestly stated that I should call and he would help me out. My fear was probably overblown, a touch on the paranoid side. But I do have tendency to absent-mindedness.

We had no difficulties at any of the airports we passed through, although I was ramrod straight and alert, particularly in Ha Noi where my excitement at being in Viet Nam was quickly dampened by the austere and rather forbidding atmosphere. The customs officials took one look at my passport and knew I was Vietnamese. Clue number 1 – my name; clue number 2 – place of birth. They spoke to me, but their accent was so thick I had no idea if it was Vietnamese or English, or another language they were speaking, and I just stared blankly back. When I realised that the official was only exchanging pleasantries, I smiled ruefully and left the queue a little wild-eyed.

At every hotel we checked into, we had to pull our passports out and present them to reception staff. At the Saigon Morin Hotel in Hue, where we arrived dripping wet and bewildered after an incomprehensible exchange with our new tour guide, reception asked to keep our records for the duration of our stay and I refused. We reached a compromise whereby reception would take copies of our passport and return them to us – but we had to wait until dinner time. We left to visit the markets, dodging clingy vendors and then to the the elaborately rambling tomb of the emperor Tu Duc. When we returned our passports were safely handed back to us and I was relieved.

From Hue, we drove to Da Nang and into Hoi An. The drive had taken all day because we stopped at a few spots on the way (but thankfully did not go near any of the claimed 'China Beaches'). We were shown into the lovely reception area of the Hoi An Life Resort in the soft drizzle of non-stop rain we had encountered since flying into Hue. Staff at the Life Resort had, to my surprise, never before encountered Viet-Australians. They told us that no Viet-Australians had ever stayed there and were impressed by how rich we must have been if we could, like all the white travellers, afford their rates.

Because there were three of us, an additional arm chair had to be located for me to sit in while we went through the usual check-in procedures. First off – our passports. A young woman came with drinks for us but by this stage, I was frantically rummaging through my bag for the case that I kept my passport in. It was not there. I waved her away, panic setting in. My sisters, too, stared at me in horror as I patted down my person, then my bag, then my backpack, opening and closing zippers in increasing terror. One of my sisters sat me down in a chair and made me talk my way through what I had done with my passport. Rational thought was gone.

The Australian Embassy is in Ha Noi. I will have to travel there by car because you need a passport to fly. How long will that take? I am going to be stuck here. I am going to miss my flight. I can't go home. What if they do not believe me? I left my driver's licence, everything else at home. Only a passport (gone!) and my credit card (still on me). When did I last have my passport? I don't know. Where is it? Why is it not here? Where else could I have put it? No where else. It has to be here. I could not have dropped it. Could I have dropped it? But where? When? I've been so careful. Really, I have!

I must have looked as panic-stricken as I felt because our driver came into reception to ask if everything was alright, to see if we needed interpreting help. The last thing I could recall doing with my passport was taking it off reception staff in the Hue hotel and then heading off for dinner, intending to stash it away in its safe place after dinner. But I did not recall stashing it away. I pictured myself putting my passport into my pocket jacket and missing. Maybe it fell on the floor of the hotel. Maybe someone had picked it up and handed it in. What if someone picked it up and pocketed it? But I was not wearing my jacket when we returned from Tu Duc's tomb. I had not been cold. I had my raincoat slung over an arm, bag and camera straps criss-crossing over my chest.

I was readying myself to ask the driver to take my back to Hue. I turned to my sister to ask her to do it, because my Vietnamese was not good enough, too impolite. And all the while I was still thinking: But where? When?

The passport was in an inside pocket of my raincoat. I had put it there to protect it. And then I had forgotten and left the raincoat slung over the back of a chair inside the van at all our numerous stops. I was so relieved at finding my passport, I almost hugged the driver. All the potential mishaps from a lazily left behind raincoat crowded into my consciousness but I pushed them away. My sisters' sympathetic relief turned into the type of berating mothers are very good at after their child returns safe from some misconceived adventure. One of my sisters demanded that I let her keep my passport, but I refused.

I had no further passport misadventures during the rest of our time in Viet Nam and then our few hectic days in Thailand before returning home.
My paranoia about losing my identity was realised in Viet Nam by my own easily distracted mind, ever on the present and drifting away from practicalities. I still have a fear that I will be unable to prove who I am because of lack of hard evidence– everything is built on some other piece of paper. I have more now – a lease, my legal admission documentation, employment contracts. But I am still worried that if I lose one – the big one – , the rest of this identity house of cards will fall down around me and there will be: nothing.

Inspired by an Odd Traveller


laziicat said...

laminate the documents. i just did with all of my family stuff....i went crazy. now everything is sealed up in plastic...all the wrinkly, ripped, yellowing sheets, encased in plastic!! hehehehe regards to the identity could always get a criminal record..then your identity will forever be preserved.... =D

OTT said...

Laziicat -

I don't trust laminate. See - told you I was paranoid.

A criminal record does seem like a good idea ... except then they might not let me be a lawyer anymore. but law students might refer to my case - which could be kind of exciting too. Plus, they might try to deport me if they don't believe my documentation (ala the poor Croat-Australian in the news earlier this year). See the bind I'm in?

honglien123 said...

My US permanent resident card was stolen a few years back. On it, was the only picture that exists of my 4 year old self. (And I was cutie, let me tell you!) It took 7 years to fully get a slick, new "green card" from USCIS, but it's not the same. I can totally relate to what you are saying. My new card doesn't have my full Vietnamese name, it feels like I'm not me anymore.

sume said...

It's amazing how much panic the loss of a few sheets of paper can cause. I have copies of my papers distributed among family members plus scans stored on disk.

I can relate to that sense of panic at not being able to find that passport. As an aside, it's kind of funny that "fitting in" with the locals in appearance can actually be a bad thing if you're trying to prove you "belong" to some other place.

OTT said...

Hong Lien -

I'm pretty cute on my travel visa, too :-) It's sad that you've lost that record.

Why doesn't your green card have your full Vietnamese name? It should!

I've acted for a few Vietnamese clients whose names are spelt incorrectly or jumbled up all over the place on different pieces of 'important paper' and I try to tell them that they deserve to have their proper name accurately recorded, in all the official places. Most just shrug and say - oh, someone mixed it up and it's okay. It's not okay! It's your name! Some of my clients just think I'm angry about it (I am) and that I should take it easy.

Sume -

Now I haven't thought of scans stored on disk! I think that's the next step...

It is funny that one can worry about fitting in *too* much - must be the fear of a person used to being different! Not that I ever fooled any of the local Vietnamese. They always knew I wasn't local, even if I did not open my mouth (unusual though that may be).

honglien123 said...

Ott: I know! It's always bothered me that my name is all jumbled up. That's wonderful that you've helped clients with this very issue. For me, N. T. Hong Lien became Lien T. N. I have to go get a name change to have it correct now. Unfortunately, after 24 years in the states, I'm used to people calling me just Lien so I don't know if I really want to have it done. Now that I use my husband's last name I have even less of an inclination to go deal with the big american immigration bureaucracy. Perhaps when I fill out my citizenship papers I'll try to get the Hong back.

n.t said...


i just finished working with some stateless vietnamese/vietnamese refugees actually.

you do run into ppl with no papers at all - the originals are gone, or else they were burnt in a fire, or if you're illiteratre, you might have thrown it out, not knowing what it was.

or else you get cases where the names have been mixed up - and the answer you get has nothing to do with your particular client (they just happened to have the same name)... and you have to start again insisting on the mistake...

in the end, all you really have is your own story to prove who you are, and your absolute certainty of your identity...

and our paperwork is more than mere paperwork - it's the remnants of our history and narrative...

n.t said...

i just remembered - my boss (or ex boss, trinh hoi) was actually most moved by a case of mistaken identity.

he'd been working on a case - but it kept being denied on the grounds that the client had a criminal record. the guy was innocent - had never done anything wrong. but they kept saying no no... criminal record. it drove the client nuts (to think that he was sentenced to a state of eternal limbo and statelessness for nothing) and he committed suicide, leaving behind a wife and two young children.

later, the US government said they'd mistaken him for a guy with the same name (born the same year too). it really reminds you that you just have to believe in yourself.

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