By Saif Choudhury (Originally published on November 10 , 2016.)
I’m a CCNY honors student, the son of immigrants from Bangladesh. I was accepted to study abroad but couldn’t because the Indian government thought I was a Pakistani terrorist. I know. Here’s what happened.
I was supposed to go study abroad in India, a country that felt close to home as my parents emigrated from Bangladesh decades ago. I was scheduled to take a course in medical anthropology and work with village health-workers to care for the people in an impoverished town — it was the perfect stop on the road to becoming a doctor. With all my future plans in mind I couldn’t keep my legs from bouncing when I arrived at the airport.
The check-in lady asked for my passport. I smiled and handed it to her because I thought everything was in order. But I’m a brown guy traveling to a country full of other brown people. “Oh, my middle name sounds like Mohammad.” “I’ve got hair on my face.” “The woman ahead of me in line is making sure her kids are nowhere near me.” Something is bound to go wrong.
“Sir, this isn’t a visa,” the lady said after swiping my passport through the machine several times. “You don’t have a valid visa.”
“That doesn’t make any sense ma’am. I got my visa from the Indian consulate office, along with the rest of my study abroad group. If they got visas, then I did, too.”
“I’m sorry but they all have stickers on their passports. Yours just has a code: ‘USPAK130’. Not sure what that is, but it’s definitely not a visa.”
My legs lost their bounce. I couldn’t feel the blood flowing to them. The only liquid I felt at the time was sweat — sweat on my palms, sweat on my forehead.
“Ma’am, the consulate’s office told me I have a visa. Maybe they forgot to put the sticker on? Is there anything I can do?” Like I’ll go through all the metal detectors and… you can strip-search me if you want. I’ll shave off my facial hair — just give me a razor and five minutes. Please just let me go on this trip. Please.
“Listen son,” she broke out of her business casual character to speak to me person-to-person. “They probably just made a mistake. Do you have their number? Just give the consulate a call and if they give us permission, we’ll let you through.”
This was my chance. I took out my phone to search for the phone number. My sweaty fingertips had dropped my iPhone — twice. But I kept frantically searching through my e-mail.
Finally, I found the information I was looking for. Cox and Kings Global Services, LLC. 646–589–0088. 6465890088. I will never forget the number. It was the number to contact the consulate. It was also the number of times my heart beat as I dialed in each digit. It was the number of rings I thought had elapsed before someone picked up.
“Hello, thank you for calling Cox and Kings Global Services, my name is Charles. How can I help you today?” I’m 90% sure his name wasn’t Charles. Chandragupta maybe. But not Charles. I went with it anyway.
“Hi Charles, my name is Saif Choudhury, and I really need your help. Two weeks ago I came to your office to collect my passport, and when I asked if I had a visa, I was told that I was good to go. But now I’m at the airport, and they’re telling me I can’t board the flight.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that sir, and I understand things can get frustrating at times,” Chandragupta was not succeeding at reassuring me. “What can I specifically do to make the situation better?”
“Can you give me the visa I was already supposed to have?”
“What does it specifically say on your passport, sir?”
“It says ‘USPAK130’. I don’t know what that means but maybe you forgot to put the visa sticker on?”
“Okay give me one moment sir.” He put me on hold, but there was no music playing. If I got to choose a song, however, I would definitely select “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees. Apparently the beat to that song is the same beat to which you should perform CPR. So if my heart gave out right then and there like I felt like it was about to, the paramedics would have something to work with.
After two minutes of humming to imaginary CPR music, Charles came back. “Sir, I’m really sorry, but the code you gave me means your visa wasn’t granted.”
“Why not?” I was trying to figure out what exactly I did wrong. Did I give the wrong application to the consulate? Did I not pay them the right amount? Was I rude at the counter when I handed the application? What did I do wrong?
“Sir, the code ‘USPAK130’ means you have something to do with Pakistan, and so the Indian embassy denied your visa.”
What did I do wrong?
“Sir? Are you there? Sir?” I forgot Chandragupta was on the other line.
“But that doesn’t make any sense. My parents were born and raised in Bangladesh, which has been independent from Pakistan since 1971. And I was born in New York. Queens, New York. Flushing Hospital. Room 5-C12. I’m an American.”
“Sir, the Indian embassy says you have something to do with Pakistan.”
“But, I don’t though. Like no disrespect to Pakistan, but I’ve never been there, I’m not going there, and I don’t plan on going there. Like I said, my parents are from Bangladesh.”
“Sir, I understand where you are coming from but there is nothing I can do.”
“No, I don’t think you exactly know where I’m coming from.” I spent $3,372.70 for this study abroad program. Plus the $82.50 to apply for a visa. Plus the $120 to get a ride to Newark airport from Flushing, Queens. And don’t forget the $40 I spent on John Cena sweatshirts so I don’t get cold in India. That’s $3,615.20 — a lot of which was nonrefundable. So please Charles, make this right and let me go on this trip.
“I’m sorry sir, but these things usually happen if you have the same name as someone who is blacklisted from travelling to India. The Indian embassy is going to ask for more documentation from you before they grant you a visa. You should expect a letter in your mail within four to six weeks.”
“But the study abroad program will be over in four weeks…”
“I’m sorry sir.”
“It’s okay. Thank you.” I hung up. Immediately, I thought of Bubba’s last words from Forrest Gump: “Why did this happen?”
It’s been a year since I missed out on studying abroad (unless you count Newark Airport as abroad). For the record, the Indian embassy never contacted me for any documents — which would explain why they only have one star on Yelp.
Moral of the story: If you want to travel outside of our country, don’t be brown.