From Hostility to Hospitality: Reflections on International Transfers in Manila
“Why you take my passport?!” Demanded a man trying to keep his arms from flailing in exasperation. He verbalized the unspoken sentiment we all felt. Who are ‘we’? Families from Hong Kong, lonesome solo travelers like me, and white folks all huddled in a circle of growing anxiety which eliminated any kind of initial wariness towards the Others when traveling overseas. Funny how something inherently so different and divisive as passports can unite us under a single banner. There we stood, an odd lot of people standing under a gigantic sign that reads: “Philippines Airlines, the Heart of the Filipino" next to the international transfer desk, Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Manila.
Granted, the proud slogan seems to have little effect in terms of morale when your passports are being ‘confiscated’. There simply is no other way to put it: you arrive at the transfer desk, presents your papers, and the next thing you know, your passports along with the boarding pass for your connecting flight is being held captive.
“For documentation purposes,” was the arbitrary reply after a persistent flailing of arms from our exasperated gentleman. I don’t know if withholding foreign nationals' passports is an unspoken Filipino practice, or an act of transgression punishable by law from a typically Western perspective. In fact, the more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that the two statements may not be mutually exclusive.
The inconvenient truth is that differences are inherent in any transfer between settings, systems, and most notably countries. For us passengers from Hong Kong, passports are quite literally an extension of self. We internalized the idea that our very lives, existence and identities all hinge on that little booklet; because that’s frankly what passports are, little booklets. They are only so precious because we choose to imbue it with meaning and concepts as vast as being, nationality, belonging–as if those entities can be accurately reflected in a mere physical manifestation of paper booklets.
Perhaps recognizing this seemingly feeble attempt to overemphasize the importance of papers, the Filipina ground personnel holding our passports didn’t even bat an eye when she explained patiently: “It’s only for documentation purposes.”
The contrast between us, the ‘unconditionally correct’ clients, and supposedly ‘lowly’ service provider, could not be more stark as we were left absolutely horrified when the Filipina disappeared with all our passports firmly clutched in her hands.
“How dare she?”
“It’s not appropriate…not standard practice…when I traveled to xyz my passport was not confiscated…”
In the absence of our passports, primitive emotions filled the void in the form of badmouthing, finger pointing, and scapegoating. We were utterly dumbfounded, unable to piece together a logical explanation in the whirring hurricane of doubt, confusion, and mistrust. We are so often surrounded by familiar sights and processes that any deviation from the default quickly breeds hostility.
There was a very audible, collective sigh of relief when the Filipina returned, distributing our passports back to us: phew, our souls have come back. No big deal, really. Are we truly overreacting? Are we? It wasn’t until I was on the connecting flight to Toronto that I began to decipher the true meaning of the slogan, “the heart of the Filipino”. To describe something as the “heart” is no small statement: the heart is associated with the purest essence of ourselves. It is sincerity, realness, authenticity, the state of being true. So what is the heart of the Filipino? While we were busy arguing with the ground personnel whether they have the authority to withhold our passports, it was easy to brush aside the many acts of kindness we were given: the airport traffic control officer, upon seeing how many of us were standing and waiting anxiously behind the line, wordlessly fetched chairs from the parking lot. The immigration officer, counting the exact number of passengers waiting to get on the next connecting flight, signalled the shuttle to transfer us to the right terminal. Even the ground personnel whom we thought was a transgressor kept a pristine record of names, so that the distribution of passports went as smoothly as possible. The level of detail and care the Filipino have put into this entire experience only emerged to the surface in hindsight. When traveling, how many of us are actually prepared to be surprised or challenged? How many of us put aside our presumptions and stereotypes and view the situation as it is? From this little episode at the international transfer desk, I learnt that despite what the name suggests, travellers often label differences as acts of transgression, thus failing to engage in any form of meaningful cultural transfer.
Following my transfer the cabin crew on board my flight to Toronto surprised us passengers with a complimentary dessert: a sponge cake. Although a humble piece of cake, the menu suggested a much nobler name: ‘the Best of Filipino treat’ – the heart of the nation. From the proud slogan of the airline, to the small acts of kindness I have received in the transfer desk, to the intrinsic confidence the Filipino has in their food, it was not so much the physical attributes that made it what it was; it was the spirit and sincerity behind every action that makes up the entire experience. It was not only a transfer from Hong Kong to Manila, but a transfer from feeling estranged and stranded to feeling truly welcomed.