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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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? 

The Final Preparations

Korean Won in hand, waiting to board my plane to Busan!

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Another Adventure on the Horizon

For those of you who have never met me, I have always been fascinated with adventure, travel, and finding out new things about new places and the new people I meet throughout the journey called live. This interest started as my family and I embarked on many summer road trips and vacations when I was a child. This weekend, a new chapter will unfold in the adventure I call my life.  

On Saturday, I am headed to Busan, South Korea, for my first trip in Asia outside of Japan. I cannot be more excited as I anticipate what should be an adventurous three day weekend as I traverse South Korea. 

When I returned to Temple University following the March 11, 2011, earthquake in Japan, I quickly became involved in Asian student associations and the international student clubs at school to try and help foreign students in the way they helped me when I was studying abroad in Japan. Throughout the next two years, I made many new friendships with foreign students; most of them residing in either Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. This weekend, I will be meeting up with my Korean friends in Busan and Seoul to get a non-tourist perspective of the two biggest cities in South Korea. 

Following the first day in Busan, I will take the Korean high speed rail train to Seoul on Sunday for a day trip to rendezvous with some of my friends that I have not seen for several years. Then it will be back to Busan on Sunday evening followed to a return to Osaka on Monday afternoon. When I first started listening to Korean pop music, I was enamored by how glamorous Seoul looked, mainly because the scenes I saw reminded me so much of my third home, Tokyo. I cannot wait to see Seoul with my own two eyes!

Each day I am in Japan it truly amazes me how I am able to communicate with the Japanese and my friends in another language. I will never forget the first time I went to Japan, not knowing Japanese. It transformed me forever and spurred what is a strong and unwavering interest in the Japanese language. I am hoping my first trip to South Korea has a similar affect on me, albeit the situation will be very different than my first trip to Japan. I am blessed and very fortunate to have friends willing to show me their country, even if for a day or weekend, and look forward to learning as much as I can. Of course, many photos will be taken. 

If you are a university student in the United States or interested in foreign language or travel, I highly recommend you join your university’s international student organizations, etc. You will have a priceless opportunity for meeting new friends, networking, and learning about yourself. Having a travel partner isn’t a bad bonus, either. 

What Learning Japanese has Meant to Me

A little more than two years ago, I went to Japan for the first time as a part of Temple University’s study abroad program at Temple University, Japan Campus. My decision to study abroad in Japan was rooted in reasons different than many other students: In the Spring 2010 semester, Temple Football and I parted ways and I did some serious soul searching.

Following a long talk with my most trusted advisors at Temple, the choice was clear: study at Temple Japan to learn about myself and the world. I had always had an interest in Japan and the United States’ relationship with the East Asian nation but never thought I would have the opportunity to actually go to Japan, especially as a college student. What seemed like a great opportunity to grow as a person and expand my horizons has become so much more as time has continued to pass.

I will never forget what it was like when I first arrived in Japan, with my vocabulary limited to: ありがとう (arigato- “thanks”), and さようなら (sayonara – goodbye). The whole experience was not terrifying, as it probably should have been. It was truly invigorating for me. I made some new friends, studied the language hard with a professor who really cared about all of her first-year students, and ended learning so much more than I ever though possible. Two months into my study abroad program in Tokyo, I had finally figured out how to go through Tokyo without getting lost and was even able to have very, very basic conversations with some of my friends in Japanese.

Things all changed on March 11, 2011, with the Great Earthquake. My experience in Japan came to a drastic end, as I was forced to return home to the United States. Little did I know it, but the kindness expressed by the Japanese on the night of the earthquake inspired me to continue to study their language and lit a spark within me to try to return the favors they had given me when I was such a novice in Japan for the first time. The scenes of that night have never left me- shopkeepers handing out onigiri on the night of the earthquake, and the policeman in Shibuya who knew three words of English who helped guide me home amid the chaos of March 11th.

Once I returned to Philadelphia, I joined the International Students Association to help foreign students at Temple learn about Philadelphia and the United States much like the Japanese had helped me during my time in Japan. It was rewarding to return the favors of the past, but I had no idea what would be on the horizon for me in a few short months.

Fast forward to today and so many things have changed. I went to Japanese language school last summer in what was one of the most grueling and rewarding experiences of my life. I am now back in Japan as an English teacher, enjoying every tiny interaction that I have with the Japanese people and with my newfound friends in Japan.

When I returned to Tokyo at the end of July, familiar places seemed to be abound with new life that was absent just two years ago. Instead of memorizing what I needed to hear on the train to get off at the right stop, I was able to listen to others’ conversations and read advertisements. I could speak with my friends only using Japanese and I could even see how English translations differed from the original Japanese meanings of announcements and signs. It was almost like I was back in Japan for the first time.

I have such a deeper appreciation for Japan and the Japanese people since I have returned subsequent to my language school. Everything from chatting with people in the restaurants and bars, to reading the signs, to just saying hello to people on a daily basis helps me know the language study was what made this all possible. If I had returned to Japan without studying Japanese in the interim, I do not know if I would be enjoying it as much as I am at this point.

My first time in Japan, my Japanese friends made such a great effort to help me in any way possible in Japan and now I am back, two years later, to help the Japanese in any way I can, albeit in a different role.

Learning Japanese has done so much for me from a personal to a professional level. Meeting new people and interacting with people in their native tongue is an experience I will never forget as long as I live.

I am an advocate for English education in the United States, but I encourage everyone to study a second language if they have the opportunity. Devoting the time and energy to this study  will reap tremendous benefit and personal satisfaction in the future. After the long hours of study, the first time you have an interaction with someone else in a language other than English will be an unbelievably memorable experience.

I hope I can have this type of experience in Korean someday.

Have you had this type of experience in your language studies?