If I Were Religious, I Would Say I Was Blessed

The sunset from Mt. Sinai

It’s a little cliche for someone who is relatively well-off, white, and a Westerner to talk about how travel changed their perspective. Goodness knows I wouldn’t want to get all Eat, Pray, Love on you. Since my most recent trip, however, I can’t stop thinking about what an amazing thing a US passport is. This little blue book entitles you to effortless passage into 159 countries, and with a little planning ahead and an application for a tourist visa, you can get access to almost all others. No wonder I feel a sense of infinite possibility when it comes time to plan a new trip.

But for many others, the possibilities for travel are not nearly so limitless. Let me share two recent experiences.

While I was in Egypt last month, I met with a local man through a tour. Despite his good job and economic stability, despite the fact that he has a wife and children and deep roots in the community, and despite the fact that he is fluent in English and works in tourism, he has tried and failed several times to get tourist visas to go abroad. When it comes to visiting countries like the US and Australia, it turns out that even middle-class Egyptians may find it close to impossible. So my friend has never left his country and has become resigned to refusing the invitations of his international acquaintances.

Back in Japan, I started working on an article about Burmese refugees living in Tokyo. I interviewed several of them, and almost everyone mentioned the difficulty of travel. Particularly before they are granted refugee status, a process which can take decades and is far from certain, it is not feasible to leave Japan. Often, they do not even have a passport and cannot obtain one because of the political situation in Burma. Of course, even if they had permission to travel and could afford to do so, they couldn’t go to the one place they most want to go: back home.

In meeting a man who cannot leave his home and people who cannot return to theirs, it struck me what an under-appreciated liberty the freedom of movement is. With my American passport and nationality, I have been invited to make a home for myself here in Japan, yet I can freely travel back and forth to the country of my birth. I’m free to pack my bag and leave on a grand adventure round the world tomorrow, and if some far-flung destination appealed to me, I would probably be able to find a way to stay there and make yet another place my home. All because I am lucky enough to hold a US passport.

The unfairness of it is staggering. It makes me want to grab every American without a passport by the scruff of the neck and shake them, screaming, “Don’t you know how lucky you are?!” And to my less-fortunate international friends, I can only apologize and offer to write a letter for your latest visa application.


5 responses to “If I Were Religious, I Would Say I Was Blessed

  1. Even more surprising for me is the ease with which Americans can move about our own country. All you need is a set of wheels, or a pair of feet, and you can explore all the states without any papers or documents. It helps to have a driver’s license, but it’s not necessary.

    I have my passport, and earlier this year my wife and I took a cruise that visited Mexico, the Cayman Islands, Belize and Honduras. It was great, but we were disappointed because when you take a cruise, your cruise documents act as a passport, so we didn’t go through customs at any of the stops, and didn’t get passport stamps. 😦

    • jessicaocheltree

      There certainly is a lot to see and do in the States! My partner is Japanese, and every time we travel in the US, he is amazed by the sheer size of the place. We can drive for hours and not even leave the state.
      I can certainly appreciate that people enjoy traveling around the US. I do to. But the experience of international travel adds something because you are exposed to different languages, cultures, ways of life, perspectives, etc. And you come to find out what outsiders think of your country, which can be pretty eye-opening! Of course, there are those lovely passport stamps as well! 🙂

  2. I have to agree with your sentiment. I was recently traveling in Cambodia talking with some of the locals and they expressed such a desire to leave and see other parts of the world but due to the corruption and the high cost of just obtaining a passport it was impossible. As Americans we are so lucky. Wherever we want to go we can, barring certain considerations. That ‘hate American’ sentiment also seems to have died down since Obama was elected, which is a nice bonus.

    • jessicaocheltree

      You know, despite the fact that I have spent pretty much my entire adult life overseas, I don’t get a lot of that ‘hate America’ stuff. Even when he-who-shall-not-be-named was the pres. Sure, people make snarky comments, but not in earnest. Kind of in the same way I tell my Canadian friends they come from America’s hat. But then again, I haven’t really been a lot of places where America is truly unpopular.

  3. Hi Jessica! Your post reminds me of the caption on the Vietnam war memorial in Washington DC, ‘Freedom is not free.’ It’s a great reminder for the rest of us.

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