by Iris Ruyu Lin
When I returned to the U.K. from Norway on 15th of January, it was my first trip back to the country since moving to Brighton in September. I felt at ease, waiting in the queue with other seemingly anxious first-time tourists, with my U.K.-issued Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) in my bag. I looked at the word “border” above the customs counters for a long time, thinking about the bodily experience of crossing borders, and how this one may be different from others.
When it was my turn, the first thing I noticed about the customs officer besides his tired face and a weak smile, was the blue tattoo on his left arm. I looked at him, trying to identify his ethnic origin. When thinking back on this now, I feel like I was a racist.
He frowned and looked at me and asked for the reason why I am staying in the U.K. I told him that I am a student. He asked where and what subject, and asked for my BRP. “You must always present your BRP with your passport,” he spoke in an unquestionable and authoritarian tone, “or we can deny your access through the border.” Something like that, I can’t remember the exact words he used.
That “we” troubled me. Who are the “we”? I remembered my Greek friends once talking about how difficult it is to get a U.S. visa. I took a deep breath and quickly replied,” I think you have made it very clear.”
He lifted his face and looked at me, deeply. And then he turned his eyes away, “Anthropology, that’s a nice subject; I always wanted to study Anthropology.” I was a little stunned by how popular Anthropology can be among bureaucrats. So I replied in a calm voice, “It is very interesting, you can try to do that.”
Maybe he wanted to show that he understood me. He said, “You have to look into it, look deeper into the people and get to know them better.” I wondered if he thought, “How come this Anthropology student doesn’t know the value of deep understanding by true interactions?”
I was distracted. The customs officer quickly and carefully handed me my documents, with my green passport cover that hides the word “China” from the cover of my Taiwanese passport. I was speechless for half a second. He wished me good luck with my stay in U.K.; I wished him good luck in his studies, awkwardly. There were many people behind me.
And then we parted. I kept thinking on the train back to Brighton: What was he trying to say exactly? How does it feel to sit at the counter looking at people passing through, or not getting a chance to pass through? The black woman at the counter looked at me and other foreign citizens seemingly with sympathy, why? The border of human minds dissolved at the physical, artificial border. It made things appear to be more ironic and bizarre. As if we are trapped in a mousetrap we made. We categorize ourselves and others and become part of the system.
I still cannot understand how anyone could think that glory can be achieved by taking others’ lives. At that moment, when standing in front of the border as a person who doesn’t belong but has to make it through these barriers, I felt myself as a human, not a student, not a researcher, not an activist, not a woman, not an Asian, not a speaker of any languages. Just a human.
Iris Ruyu Lin is a student on the MA in Anthropology at the University of Sussex. She is from Taiwan (Republic of China), an independent country de-facto albeit People’s Republic of China has claimed it to be part of the “Mother Land” and Chinese legal territory since the end of World War II. A citizen of Taiwan can travel to most countries in Europe and the United States without a visa. Prior to her studies in the U.K., Iris lived in India for five years where she worked with Tibetan refugees. Like the Tibetans, Iris considers India her second home.