Fear & Loathing at the US Embassy

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Renewing a passport, especially in a foreign country, is one of life’s little frustrations. It’s not really that time intensive or complicated, but it’s mildly expensive and you’ll probably have to go on Tuesdays only between the hours of 9-10:25 a.m. It’s an eye-roll experience, but one that luckily only comes once or twice a decade for me as an American citizen (passports last for ten years but easily run out of pages).

Three weeks ago I rolled up my sleeves and made my way to the US Embassy. I worked there two years ago as a Political and Economic Affairs intern, which was an experience for another article (a good one!). I had made an appointment two weeks previous for the next available time slot, which you must do in order to be on the consular guest list. I planned to head into Scandinavia Standard HQ afterwards, so I had my iPhone, diary, and mini iPad with Logitech keyboard, headphones, flash drive, and various odds and ends.

It was one of those mornings that dragged you down with it. My train was late. Then it stalled outside the station. There was no ventilation so I was sweating like a penguin in the tropics. I finally got to the embassy about 10 minutes late. I showed my passport, had my name ticked off the list, and was asked what kind of electronics were in my bag. Showing the security guard, he gave me a malicious grin. It struck me as odd. “You can’t bring those in there.”

I had known that you weren’t allowed to bring laptops to the embassy, but didn’t realize that this extended to tablets as well. “Can’t I just leave it out here, like I’ll do with my phone?” No, I was told. Although iPhones and iPads perform the exact same functions, one can be left at the security gate and one cannot. What to do? Can I leave it with a guard standing outside the building as I go in? Nope. The man’s grin became wider and wider. I started to shut off. “I worked here,’ I groaned, not really sure what I meant. ” Well, I don’t remember you,” he replied, narrowing his eyes. I didn’t say so but I remembered him.

I was told to deposit my iPad at the Østerport train station locker and come back, when he would try to fit me back into the schedule (side note, there were four other people in the consular service at that moment). Dear security man at the US Embassy who did not remember me: there are no storage lockers at the Østerport station. You apparently perpetuate this myth on a regular basis, though, because when I finally asked the nice young man working at the Baresso counter if I could just leave it with him, he said, “Oh sure, this happens all the time.”

Expensive and personal information-packed items left with stranger, I headed back to the embassy. The security man ushered me in, where I underwent a full gynecological exam. I mean, just about. I was asked to empty my bag. Then asked to empty the small makeup bag inside my bag. They took out my PawPaw ointment and put it aside. What’s this? Oh, those are grapes. Please remove them from the plastic bag. Sure, are you hungry? Note: jokes do not go over well with security guards. Or maybe security guards hate grapes, I’m not a mind reader.

I want to be fair here. Not every interaction I’ve ever had with security at the US Embassy has been negative. As I said, I worked there and had a really good experience. I know they have to take security seriously and I don’t begrudge the guards their job at all (nor do I want it; it’s tough!). But it’s nice to be treated like a human, or sometimes even a beloved pet, in any given exchange.

Here’s the thing. We all have to go through this stuff. Security check points aren’t pleasant, usually either for the people going through them or the security guards whose job it is to be invasive and firm. I’m almost never bothered, other than by the brief inconvenience of it, to go through a security check at a building or airport. What is bothersome, what is enraging and unacceptable, is when a security guard finds sadistic pleasure in the power they have over those going through the check point.

Sometimes, that sadism spreads to the other security guards like red wine seeping into the carpet. It permeates every aspect of the interaction. All of the security guards were men and, although I don’t assert that this power imbalance isn’t possible with women as the perpetrators, there was an added gender dynamic that left me feeling troubled. I want to be very clear: no one did or said anything directly inappropriate.

But this group of male security guards were really enjoying my discomfort, the nervous energy that can only be described as radiating. They laughed, directly, at my emotional response to what was happening. Between the three times over the last few weeks that I have gone through the security check, the same group of men found different things to check and re-check, reprimand me for having. First it was fruit, a Zip drive, lip balm. Then it was a jacket and a watch. Apparently the US Embassy is the place time forgot, no one can wear a watch there (untrue).

Once I made it inside (to the inner sanctum? Fort Knox? What is the deal, anyway?), I took a number and proceeded to sit for 20 minutes, flipping through an old InStyle magazine. My number was called and I brought all my goods to the clerk’s window. I had everything, I tell you. But I still didn’t have EVERYTHING: my passport photos were the wrong size. Instead of having this service somewhere near the embassy (hello, money-maker), the nearest photo shop is a 15 minute walk. The clerk told me to leave everything with her, get the photos, and make it back before they closed in 40 minutes’ time. She gave me a signed note to get back into the embassy, like a hall pass.

As I walked out of the consular section and back through security, I flashed my hall pass and said to one of the guards, “I just have to get some passport photos so I’ll just leave my cell phone and other stuff here.” I thought this was being considerate; it meant he didn’t have to go through the whole process again. He looked at me like I was trying to sell him a bridge. “Oh no you won’t!” he snapped. I am not employing hyperbole here. There is no other way to describe the way he said this to me. I must have looked shocked, because I felt shocked. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

He handed me back my things and I walked out the door at fast clip. I had 40 minutes to complete a 30 minute round-trip journey, plus get my photos taken and developed. Luckily, when I arrived there was no line and everything went smoothly. I got the pictures, high-tailed it back to the embassy, went through the metal detector once again to the amusement of the security guards and handed in my pictures. Done. Two weeks, she told me. As I walked out, I turned to the security guard and said, “I’m sorry if I was rude earlier, this has been a frustrating day but that’s not an excuse.” Instead of taking the opening to apologize himself, he smiled like a Madonna and said, “I’m used to it.” Such martyrs, these guys.

The clerk’s timing was spot on. Two weeks to the day I got an email telling me to arrive on the next Passport Pick-up Day (it is actually 3 hours one day per week) to get my new document. This time I left my electronics at home. Security still found items to harp on (as I mentioned before, my watch was a big problem for some reason) but I went through, took a number and sat down to wait, thumbing the same InStyle as before.

An elderly lady sat two chairs over and had the number before mine. When her number was called, she proceeded to clerk’s window and launched into her story. She was 73*, American, and had lived in Copenhagen with her Danish husband for the last 40 years. Her children were Danish, her grandchildren were Danish, but she had always retained her American citizenship (“Because, well…I’m American!” she said). She hadn’t been to the US in nearly 20 years and was now trying to decide whether or not to finally renounce her citizenship in favor of Danish citizenship.**

I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop but the woman was directly in front of me, speaking in a loud clear voice. I’m not sorry I overheard, though, because for me the moment was an important one.

I listened to this woman struggle with this massive questions and I thought: that’s me. In 50 years, that could easily be me. And here I am at the embassy, and here I’ll still be, going through security like an assumed-criminal, bringing the wrong size passport photos, and trying to figure out what citizenship is really all about and who I really am.

I’ve probably said this before and I may say it again: citizenship is important to me as a concept. I believe in the social contract behind it and I take it seriously. I get excited to vote, I feel grateful for the existence of embassies and consulates, I keep up to date with what my rights are. Not everyone feels this way and that’s okay. Some people do feel this way but don’t conciously think of it. As a child of immigrants, as a part of a family in which no generation in the last hundred years has remained in the same country, as a member of a minority group for whom citizenship and its priviledges has often been a means of discrimination, I frequently consider what it means to be a citizen.

It’s also had tangible implications for my life. I live in a country other than the one in which I claim citizenship. I am married to a man who has a passport that is not the same color as my own. The external things that can make our relationship compelling, like sharing our different cultures, languages and religions, can be a source of frustration when they work against us.

Sitting in the consular office, listening to a woman whose lovely Southern twang marked her as far more American than I’ll ever sound. I felt a lump rising in my throat. She stood there, polite and attentive, asking for advice on a decision she had clearly already made. I heard, I think, a hint of weariness in her voice. All my feelings on citizenship, on permanent residency, on Denmark and America and the security of borders, rose and then disintegrated.

I can think about these things all day but I can’t do much to change the situation. I’m an immigrant and I love both the country I’m from and the country I live in. My fate is often at the mercy of officials and to get to those officials I sometimes have to get through the men at the security gate. These are facts of life and they are the facts of a good life; a life I have chosen. I can walk out of the embassy and into the fresh air. I can go home.

In half a century, I may be standing before the consular clerk in Denmark or elsewhere, deciding who I am. Maybe my husband will be the one doing it instead. Whatever he decides, or I decide, it will be okay. All the security men in the world couldn’t keep me from that decision or the life that leads to it.

*Details of all people have been changed slightly to avoid chance of identification; it’s not my place to identify people here, the focus is on my own experience.

**NB: This article was written before dual-citizenship was passed in Denmark.

Have you had a good or bad embassy experience? What about a big decision about citizenship? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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Rebecca Thandi Norman

Rebecca Thandi Norman is a co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at Scandinavia Standard.