For the sake of scholarship: A tale of two passports
I still remember the intensity of my panic and anxiety when I opened the results to the first round of the inaugural PhD admissions process at the Università Degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche, or the 'University of Gastronomic Sciences' (UNISG) in Pollenzo, Italy. I had come back to the United States, to my home state of Maryland for several reasons: my cousin’s wedding, to avoid my master’s dissertation, and attempt to figure out my next steps in life. My choices at present both involved some form of movement; I’d either be moving across the Atlantic to Italy or towards the Pacific to settle in Long Beach, where (hopefully) I’d be able to build myself a career in medicine. With glimpses of California sunshine shining down upon one path and another doused in various types of Italian wine, I bit my lip and made the seemingly obvious choice — I was going to Italy.
Growing up, the idea of moving, movement, and migration existed as a painful reminder of how many sacrifices my parents had to make for me to be born and raised as a citizen of the United States. My parents were both refugees who escaped genocide and war, meaning I am no stranger to the concept of migration as a means of pursuing a 'better life', especially when life didn’t give you an option to stay to begin with. In essence, migration was seemingly packaged together with some form of exceptional suffering along with the attitude that this 'suffering' was necessary to advance or better one’s conditions. To migrate was to leave, to leave was to be on your own, and that was the last thing you’d want to do.
I was 18 years old when I decided that leaving was all I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to travel, I wanted to learn, and I wanted to help people. After combing through textbooks and surviving numerous introductory courses I’d decided on anthropology. I was going to be an anthropologist; I was going to travel the world and resettle wherever my research interests took me. I was invested in this idea that free movement for the sake of scholarship was the way to do it. It was clear-cut and clean, who could see any issues with my transitory existence if it were for the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of academia?
I contemplated the bureaucratic hurdles that awaited me. Fortunately for me, my American passport had its perks. Despite the complications of being an international student residing in England, the confusingly translated documents about the numerous ‘equivalency papers’ I’d need to prove my worthiness to the Italian state, and my lack of command of the Italian language, I had somehow made it to Pollenzo. I crossed the border, found a place to stay, and met five of my six other course-mates. After a brief introduction to the course, a few handshakes here and there, it was explained to us that one of our other colleagues, Muhammed Abdul-Aziz, would be joining us a month or so after our start-date because of visa-related issues. In that brief moment, I felt a mixture of guilt and anger. I just couldn’t reconcile how I was able to seemingly waltz into the country and sit at the table with my Italian colleagues while my other colleague, my academic counterpart of sorts, was facing an assortment of restrictions. My brain strewed together its own Shakespearean take on the whole situation and asked, 'What’s in a passport?'
Six months into the PhD programme, things are different. Aziz and I both possess our coveted permessi di soggiorno or 'permits of stay' and are, in an official Italian bureaucratic sense, legally allowed to reside here as students. Over the months we exchanged conversation about our experiences navigating the Italian student visa process; we commiserated extensively. Aziz summarises our frustrations by saying 'I think we both have suffered greatly', but when he said this, I had to disagree. While I experienced some issues with my student visa process, I had no doubt that Aziz had a harder time.
Prior to arriving in Pollenzo Aziz had never left Pakistan; while he had expressed to me that he’d traveled extensively in-country, he never found a reason to stray from his home of Karama Village in the Ladha Tehsil subdivision of the tribal district of South Waziristan. Like me, Aziz found motivation to migrate for the sake of scholarly endeavours. He stressed that receiving his PhD was crucial to the entire idea of crossing borders, 'This is the major reason, there is no other reason [for me] to leave Pakistan'. Present circumstances allowed him to balance the demands of two aspects of his life: his life as a scholar as well as his role as a father and head of household — a feat that was seemingly out of reach had he stayed in Pakistan.
As we sat together at the table, Aziz and I reviewed our visa timelines starting from our acceptances in late September 2018. Previous to our official course commencement in November, we both visited our respective Italian embassy and consulate a total of fourteen times collectively. While I was irked by having to return to the Italian consulate in London four times, Aziz had me beat with a staggering ten. We both experienced issues with providing documentation, most specifically the 'right' kind. We lamented about the vagueness of the document requirement descriptions as well as the daunting strictness that came with the assessment of our paperwork.
Unlike me, Aziz’s visa journey included an international telephone-based circus from him, to the university, to the embassy, to him, and back around again in a continuous loop for nearly three months. It also included an uncomfortable interview with an Italian ambassador which forced him to painstakingly explain why he was absolutely qualified to undertake this degree for several hours. To this ambassador, it didn’t matter that Aziz was accepted and formally invited to study at UNISG, nor did it matter that Aziz was a published ethnobotanist. What mattered was meeting strict standards of paperwork and interview performance, both of which took Aziz longer to perfect. Aziz elaborated to me that regardless of one’s cause, entering Italy with a Pakistani passport was rife with difficulties, 'The rejection rate is like 80% or so', he emphasised. In actuality about 71% of multi-entry Schengen visas applied for in Pakistan were rejected in 2018; regardless, this factual discrepancy did not detract from his overarching point.
Despite his grief, and to my dismay, Aziz received his permit of stay and student visa long before I ever received mine. Although Aziz and I had begun our individual visa journeys around the same time, as well as crossed paths frequently at the local immigration office throughout the entire process, he emerged victorious in this bureaucratic marathon. 'So shall I call you Thad as opposed to Thao?' he inquired, after I explained my visa woes. We often laugh about the whole situation, because apparently, regardless of what kind of passport you have, the Italian state can still make spelling mistakes.
Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam
Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam is a PhD candidate in Ecogastronomy, Education, and Society at Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche and an Oxford MSc graduate in Medical Anthropology. Specialising in food and nutritional anthropology, Thao’s research focuses on traditional Khmer food-medicines, seasonality, and maternal diets of rural Cambodian women. Ashley produces a podcast entitled Bites of the Round Table and is the editor of the zine GastronomicalGrrrls.
Follow them on Twitter @ashleythaodam or Instagram @foragedandfed.
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Picture by the author.