I Cherish My Identity, No Matter How Many Customs Officials Undermine It

Digital illustration by Ivy Sand.

I like to call myself an international kid. I have lived on three different continents and learned five languages (even if I don’t remember all of them anymore), and my mom and dad are Indian and German, respectively. My mom has always said that living abroad and being multicultural has numerous benefits. I’ve been able to explore new places, meet new people, experience different cultures and learn new languages.

Unfortunately, these benefits come with challenges, including moving a lot, having to always make new friends and always being “different” no matter where I go, which has often left me feeling like an outsider. My mom often assures me that my experiences and who I am have made me more resilient, adventurous and socially adaptive, and a better problem solver. While these parts of my experience sound, and have been, incredibly beneficial for me, one part has always bothered me. 

It happens to me almost every time I travel internationally by plane. I can’t control or prevent it; it is prompted by how I look. 

I am both Indian and German, brown and white. Because I am mixed, I don’t look like either of my parents. There are countless things I cherish about my racial identity, but the encounters I have had with airport security are not one of them. 

When I was younger, I lived in Hong Kong and then Amsterdam, and would frequently fly back to the States with my mom to visit family. Since we look different, we would always raise questions from immigration officers. 

I clearly remember the first time my mom sat me down to warn me about what might happen at customs. I stared at her, confused, as she explained that since we looked different, the officers were likely to treat us differently from other travelers. She explained that the officers were making sure that she was my actual mom and she wasn’t trying to kidnap me. I thought it was a joke. I just couldn’t fathom that because our skin colors were different, people assumed we were not related. 

But sure enough, as soon as we approached the customs official, he got suspicious and started barking questions at me. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I felt alone. I was by myself. Not only did I not look like my mom to the officer, but I myself felt estranged from her. 

As I was going through my own mental identity crisis thinking about all that, the officer continued questioning me: “How old are you? Where are you from?” I stuttered as I nervously responded, trying not to get the easiest questions about myself wrong. My mind was spinning with worries: Will I get arrested? Am I going to jail? Then the officer asked the question I’d been dreading, the one my mom warned me about: “Is this your mom?” I struggled to form a response—of course she was my mom, but I was taken aback by the fact he actually asked that question. I absolutely hated hearing it. 

That was the first uncomfortable airport security incident, but it was certainly not the last. More recently, German custom officers, known as bundespolizei, also gave me a hard time. They were suspicious that I have a German passport and my mom doesn’t. 

In Germany, it’s common for a wife to change her maiden name to her husband’s. My mom didn’t change her last name; she kept her Indian one, and my parents gave me my dad’s German one. The fact that we have different last names makes traveling even more difficult. We are initially held up because we appear different, but when officials see we have different last names, which is uncommon in Germany, I am questioned even further. Now, every time I travel with my mom in Europe, we have to bring a signed letter from my dad stating that my mom is his wife and I am his son. 

In the aftermath of each bad experience at the airport, I’ve felt frustrated that I was targeted because of something I have no control over. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that what I experienced is part of a fundamental issue, one that speaks to the world we live in. GDS has a diverse population of students, many of whom are multiracial. I know I am not alone in struggles like these, but knowing so many others have similar encounters saddens me and raises the question of how we can prevent experiences that make people feel pained by who they are.