About a year ago, I moved from my upper middle class Long Island home to London for a year to get my master's degree. I'd worked in New York City for nearly two years and was ready for a change. I'd only been to Europe one other time before when I visited my sister studying abroad in Barcelona for a week. To say I was a nervous wreck was an understatement. After getting used to pounds as a form of currency and alcoholic cider, I found life in London downright pleasant. There were parts of me that never wanted to leave. For the first time, I could see America from the outside and with that, came seeing myself from the outside as well.
When I first arrived at Heathrow airport, I remember how judged and scrutinized I felt by the UK Border Agency. I needed a bunch of different forms and information regarding my visa status to get through those gates. Every time I passed through successfully, I'd almost be surprised. I came back to New York for Christmas and I'll never forget the feeling of jubilation when the passport controller at JFK said: "Welcome home." I nearly hugged the man, I was so happy to be welcomed into a country.
When I arrived back in London, after going through what I thought was the fifth degree of questioning, I began complaining to one of my English friends. I couldn't understand why the UKBA was so rude. I remember myself saying: "The U.S. passport controllers are so much nicer."
My friend, who was born in Great Britain, but of Pakistan descent, responded quietly, "Well maybe to you."
He proceeded to tell me the story of the time his junior high school class took a trip to New York. It was a small group who was able to afford the trip overseas and having never been to America before, my friend and his group were more than a bit excited. In the newly post 9-11 world, they expected to be vetted by the national guards after arrival, but what they didn't expect was to be kicked out of the country.
My friend, (who was just 13 at the time) was the only 'Muslim' on the trip. He was interrogated and despite the legitimate nature of his trip, his natural-born British citizenship and teachers to vouch for him, he was immediately put back on a plane to Heathrow, never seeing more of America than the holding room of JFK airport.
After hearing his story, I felt like the biggest idiot in the world, complaining about the routine questions I'd been asked by the UKBA. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think I used to believe I was entitled as an American to travel with little fuss. I've always heard that being American comes with a price, but contrary to my belief before traveling abroad, it's a price that we've rightly earned.
My shock grew less and less apparent as I heard more stories of this nature while abroad. Losing my naïveté regarding my country was not something I planned on learning but it was definitely something that changed me forever. As Americans, we have a sense of pride that I used to consider a virtue. Nowadays, I'm not sure where I stand with my pride. It's still there; I'm just not sure how proud of it I am anymore.