Read Your Passport Like a Novel

I don’t know what the most exciting part of traveling is for you, but one of the moments I anticipate the most when I travel is getting a new passport stamp, whether it be on entry or exit into a new country or my current country of residence. While our encounters with customs officers may not always be brief or enjoyable, there is (usually) one payoff at the end of the questioning period: the coveted passport stamp. From entry to re-entry permits, student and work visas, temporary visa-free stamps, and other visa-on-arrival programs, our passports tell stories not only about ourselves, but about the travels and journeys on which we embark when we have the time and money. I recently filled up an entire page of my passport with visa stamps from Korea, Japan, and Singapore, and I realized my passport would have some fascinating stories to tell if it could speak. Here are some of those stories, from the first visa page.

photo 1

As I open the first page of my American passport, with its chipped cover and its unraveling sides, I begin the journey down the trail of my life for the last three and a half years. The first pages boasts a full-page Japanese student visa complete with my Afro, which was my signature style for several years during the early 2000s up until about 2012. “How did I look so young,” I always ask myself, but the second page is where things get even more interesting. Even better yet, I still don’t know how I made it in Japan when the only Japanese I knew was self-taught on the grueling plane flight from New York to Tokyo. 

There is a landing permission sticker granted by the Japanese government under its old immigration system, which basically signifies that I have permission to remain in Japan for fifteen months (in 2011-2012), but not express written permission to leave without paying for another sticker to be put on that page. Underneath that lies the proof that I went to speak to immigration officers at city hall in Tokyo’s Meguro-ku (目黒区) neighborhood to register as a foreign resident. It’s amazing how my long journey back to Japan can conjure up so many memories when just looking at a page inside of a flimsy book. Even more telling, though, is the other stamp I have on that page: a departure stamp from Narita International Airport, dated March 15th, 2011. One of the defining moments of my life up to this point is definitely the Great Tohoku Earthquake, during which I lived in Tokyo. Seeing that stamp triggers flashbacks to my frantic rush to the airport while trains were still not running on schedule. I will write about that experience in another day. This page appears to be a window into my soul for Asian travels, but it gets even better upon further examination.

photo 2

My friend Andrew and I were able to snag the elusive Canadian entrance stamp during a road trip through Montreal and Quebec City en route to Fundy National Park back in 2013! After going through a barrage of questions about drugs and alcohol, we had a short talk with customs officials and they agreed to I’ve us the entrance stamp at a small border crossing between Vermont and Quebec. The unique thing about this stamp is how the French is on the top of the stamp with English on the bottom half of the stamp. It was a sign of things to come for what we would encounter during our road trip through French Canada.

Turning to the next page, I see a myriad of stamps and staple holes, but my most prized staples come from the two Special Administrative Regions in China, Hong Kong and Macau. Last year, the authorities stopped stamping passports in these two cities, and I would be lying right now if I was happy that my passport has flimsy pieces of paper stapled to it instead of having actual stamps. Still, they make for an interesting story. I remember speaking with the authorities and asking for a stamp but they regretfully informed me that they were no longer issuing stamps. This encounter was certainly the low point of a remarkable first trip to Hong Kong and Macau. I have been back three times since and each city always gives the same piece of paper, affixed to the passport. Nothing beats a stamp, but I will settle for the stapled visas. 

photo 3

The next page of my passport conjures up memories of my marathon trip through Southeast Asia this year, with stamps from Singapore and Thailand playing predominate roles. The extravagance of the airport in Singapre coupled with the magnificent view from atop the Marina Bay Sands pool deck coupled with the tough immigration in Bangkok re-enter my mind as I look at this page.

Further down on this page, there exists a phantom stamp of sorts, an Ameriacn re-entry stamp without an exit or entry stamp in its vicinity. I went to Israel in 2011 and this stamp actually became an issue at the border crossing station in Jolan Bator, Malaysia. I was grilled by immigration about this stamp but actually ended up having no problems at the end of the day. Why is there no stamp to match up with this American one? It’s simple: Israel. At Ben Gurion Airport, I handed over my passport to the official and asked for the stamp to be put in my passport, but the official refused, and perhaps it was for the better: I may not have been able to enter Malaysia that night had there been more issues. i clung to my passport all night on the overnight train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

 

The next page in my passport is filled with even more interesting stories, ranging from a one day junket by ferry from Singapore to Indonesia and the subsequent exit and re-entry Singaporean stamps. 

Perhaps the most exciting and elusive stamp for Americans is the special stamp I have from China, documenting that I am allowed to stay in China for up to, but not exceeding, 72 hours as a part of a new visa-free stay program the Chinese government implemented for Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. I was fortunate enough to spend a night on the Bund and a day on the town before heading back to the airport after a 26 hour layover. The view from M on the Bund immediately comes to mind. 

photo 1

The final page of stamps I have is the same photo that greeted you at the beginning of this article: stamps from Korean, Singaporean, and Japanese immigration officials. Each time I leave Japan on my work visa, I get a special stamp saying I have a certain resident status and that I am permitted to return to Japan on my visa. Seeing those reminds me of coming “home” to Japan, and also conjures up memories of my first international trip from Japan to Korea, last September, to see friends from college. I will be back to Korea again in the near future, but nothing will equal the excitement from the first time when I touched down at Gimahe International Airport last September. From the bind at customs returning from Korea this July to the relative ease with which I am usually whisked through customs in Japan, lost memories and images always come back to me when I look at my passport’s ever-filling pages. 

With an adventure to Taipei on the horizon within the next ten days, I felt the urge to flip through my passport, and my passport decided to bring back some great memories and long forgotten stores of being out on the road. Open your passport sometime and look at it. You’ll find out it is the shortest and most interesting novel you will ever read. 

What stories and stamps does your passport hold? 

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One thought on “Read Your Passport Like a Novel

  1. I love to look at the stamps in my passport and although there aren’t as many stamps in my passport as I’d like, some of them contain interesting stories. Such as when I arrived in Laos – I was in line to obtain my visa on arrival, the customs agent (if that’s her proper title) put up a sign saying “Break for Breakfast.” And that was prior to noon.

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