Last Tuesday, I awoke very early and made a pilgrimage to Croydon, a gritty area of southeast London. I took at 6:30 overground train and by 7:30, I took my place at the end of an already lengthy queue outside a sad gray government building. All of us in the line, we all looked different from each other, in a United Nations sort of way. Different hair and different clothes, we spoke different languages. We were all there for different reasons. Yet all of us were gripping plastic envelopes containing important life documents: birth certificates, passports, photos, utility bills, applications that have been triple-checked. We all wore expressions on our face that ranged from bordom to nervousness to desperation. We were all foreigners, braving our way through the buracracy of UK immigration at the Home Office.
I haven’t spent a great deal of time contemplating my nationality — being an American is so intrinsic to my identity, I was, prior to my move, completely unselfconscious about it. It was a fact as easy and comfortable as acknowledging that the sky is blue. But being a foreigner visiting the immigrations, customs and border control office brings nationality right to the forefront of identity: I am in this country by the good graces of a foreign government, and so best to be as pliant to their manners and compliant with their requirements as possible.
Happily, I returned from Croydon successful in my efforts (more on that latter). A small reminder and warning for any would-be expatriates out there, however: a life abroad is not all about foreign-accents and frequent flyer status. Nor is it solely about exciting adventures in far-flung cities. It’s about standing in line. At 7:30 in the morning. In the cold. Waiting to take a seat in a government office and wait for your number to be called.