Really good question – it has both helped and hindered my travels in so many ways! Being of Middle Eastern origin, I’ve had plenty of experiences which could amount to ‘racial profiling’ upon entering some foreign countries, and those I’ve always just brushed off as part of the experience traveling the world. But one instance in particular was especially unexpected.
It was 2007, and I was on my way back home to the U.S. from one of my crazy ‘extended weekend’ trips – this one was to Belize and Guatemala – and I had to clear customs first in Miami. I live in San Francisco, but I was catching a flight from Miami directly to San Diego where I had an interview the next morning for a new school project that my Firm was going after (I’m an architect). After any international trip, I always look forward to the U.S. Customs agents greeting me with a “welcome home”. It’s always nice to hear that, but this time was much different.
The officer flipped through my passport, and then asked me some strange questions, including where my parents were born. As soon I answered that my mother was from ‘Syria’, he immediately told me to wait and left the booth, only to come back five minutes later to say he couldn’t process me there. I caused a scene, yelling “I am a U.S. citizen! I was born here!” and then was reluctantly taken to a detainment room where I waited hours before being interviewed by another agent. This agent asks me all kinds of even stranger questions about personal details of my life and my family. I tell him that it’s obvious I’m being discriminated against, and he disagrees, saying that my ‘passport looked suspicious’ given its many stamps.I asked (sarcastically) if I should get a new one before every trip to avoid being detained by U.S. Customs again. He unbelievably responded, “No, you should be proud of your travels!”
They eventually let me go, and I was put on the next flight to San Diego – the next morning, meaning I missed my original flight, had to pay for my own hotel night in Miami, and even missed the interview in San Diego. Calling my boss that night from my hotel room in Miami was not a fun experience. To top it off, I had no reason anymore to go to San Diego, but they wouldn’t change my flight to take me directly back home to San Francisco. What a mess!
One good way my background has helped my travels? Aside from the obvious helpfulness of speaking Arabic, I also have a Jordanian passport – so while it costs tourists 50 Jordanian Dinars (about $70 U.S. dollars) to visit Petra for the day, it costs me just 1 JD ($1.40).